alexandrianews.org Editorial

Kudos yet again to City Manager Mark Jinks and City staff for coming up with another budget that is responsible given the political realities under which the Manager operates. Largely due to the measures that city government has taken to responsibly and creatively restrain and reduce its own budget over the last few years, the Manager produced a budget that could result in no new taxes for Alexandrians should the Council show more discipline than was evident last year. Being an election year, we suspect they will. Lest anyone forgets, the Council, with the exception of Mayor Silberberg, voted to significantly increase taxes and fees last year and this also nicely set up funding for this year’s budget.

The Manager has engaged in few new initiatives but has addressed several growing and unmet needs. We applaud the increased funding for public safety programs and Mr. Jinks’s recognition that the competition for safety personnel is acute in the D. C. metropolitan area.  Competent law enforcement is critical to our citizenry and we must remain competitive in salaries in a region where the cost of living is high.

Improvements to transportation services and infrastructure, including road maintenance, were also proposed. Both Metro and DASH will receive increased funding with very reasonable fare increases allowing for improved service and reduced fares during non-peak hours for seniors as well as free fares to all Alexandria high schools, which expands the current program for T.C. Williams students to include the private high schools. 

Efforts to mitigate the raw sewage which flows into the Potomac River from Alexandria’s combined sanitary and storm sewers were essentially dealt with when large fee increases were imposed on residents last year. While much hay has been made that the state of Virginia accelerated the City’s proposed timeline for separating outflows, it is to be noted that other down-river jurisdictions have proceeded apace and that it was more a lack of local political will to tackle the expensive issue for many years which led to the state’s mandate.

Mr. Jinks also proposed a joint partnership with the business community in the King Street corridor in light of the failed Business Improvement District effort last year. The Manager acknowledged that Old Town is in competition with National Harbor and the new Wharf District which, while still under construction, is already turning out to be a big draw for the District. The budget proposes new funding for increased street cleaning, marketing and special events, improvements to Waterfront Park including docking for the U.S.S. Providence and hanging flower baskets in the retail corridor. One hopes that equal consideration is at some point given to other local business districts within this City that serve our many other residents on a daily basis.

Which leads us to a frank assessment of local businesses and the tax burden split between residential and commercial properties. There is no other way to put it – Alexandria is severely out of whack. According to the CY 2018 Real Property Tax Assessment Summary, our residents are shouldering close to 80 percent of the property tax burden. Many cities aim for their commercial properties to bear the majority burden yet even a reasonable goal of 50-50 or 60-40 has grown beyond Alexandria’s grasp. We have placed undue regulatory burdens on our businesses and the process of getting approvals through the planning process, even without court challenges from the citizenry, is oppressive. As the residential tax rate increases, whether directly through tax increases imposed by Council or because rising values equate with higher revenues from our residents to the City’s coffers, we question how the Council can ever meaningfully get ahead on affordable housing. And thus Councilman Baily’s proposal to increase the restaurant tax to pay toward it or the Mayor’s proposal to have restaurants directly request “voluntary contributions” for affordable housing at the bottom of their bills. People do not go out to eat to be reminded about the City’s own lack of planning. There is no magical answer. As the City has promoted dense town house and condominium development, we have found that these developments do indeed produce more school children and traffic, as well as  increased needs for public safety improvements and city services. Councilwoman Pepper’s concerns regarding affordable housing would be more apt if there was some acknowledgement that Council’s own policies have played no small role in causing the situation. It is extremely expensive to buy and develop land in Alexandria and pressuring residential developers for additional subsidized units is not a viable end game. Investing in regional transportation to get people to Alexandria from where they can afford and may even prefer to live is something that needs much more serious consideration.

Finally, the School system. Most of the City’s budgetary increases in operating and capital expenditures are going to fund the Alexandria City Public Schools. Alexandrianews.org has noted again and again that the School Board has dealt with their own budgets like they are bouncing a super ball – the higher the better. “Planning are not us” could be their motto. They have consistently passed budgets and then requested millions more only months later. As noted in a recent editorial, this month the Board adopted a Ten Year Capital Budget that was $16 million more than the one recommended by the Superintendent, which is $106 million more than the budget adopted by the City last year. This number is also nearly $75 million more than that recommended by the Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force. Mr. Jinks has proposed funding 100% of the Superintendent’s request and for that we would hope that the Board might feel gratified. Taxpayers will not just have to pay for all of this new construction but will also need to cover similar huge increases in operating outlays for staffing. The ACPS Board has extended its educational mandate toward universal pre-school without open dialogue with the citizenry or private neighborhood oriented pre-school providers. One can certainly question whether bussing tiny children to large pre-school centers at existing elementary schools is the best way to deliver this service. The model appears to be to provide the service at a much greater cost than private pre-schools spend per student, request the construction of new elementary schools and the expansion of existing schools because they are then overcrowded, and depend on City Council member silence to proceed. Yes, there is increased enrollment but that enrollment has also grown by the assumption of services that might best be served by direct city subsidies allowing private care providers to expand. We have long noted that the focus of this Board has been on construction projects at the expense of student achievement. And we note that while City departments were asked to reign in their budgets, the school system’s central office staffing has been growing without similar efficiency mandates.

About that Task Force. It was composed of some of our best and brightest citizen volunteers. One member noted that a Task Force goal was to develop a framework so that such a committee “is never needed again”. They proposed basic structural changes and common sense solutions to how this City analyzes and funds its service and capital needs, including whether the service provision requires a capital project at all. These processes should already be in place. Indeed, previous School Boards and Councils operated by many of the principals that were forwarded to City Council by the Task Force. It was disappointing that last night no member of Council mentioned that these recommendations would be used to evaluate the capital projects that were funded in the Manager’s proposed budget. We strongly encourage  citizens to read the Task Force report. Urging the Council and the School Board to formally implement its recommendations could save taxpayers a lot of money in the future. Political platitudes will not serve the long term financial health of this City.