alexandrianews Editorial

Last Thursday evening, the Alexandria City Council unanimously approved a Fiscal Year 2019 Operating Budget of $748.4 million and a $2.2 billion ten-year Capital Improvement Program budget. There were few surprises from those items that were already in the budget proposed by the City Manager a few months ago. Notably, additional dollars were approved to deal with the retention and recruitment of public safety personnel. The metro area continues to grow and competition for excellent police and fire department employees continues to grow with it. A task force will make recommendations on how best to spend that money and report to Council in the fall. 

While the 2018 real estate tax rate of $1.13 per $100 of assessed value has remained unchanged during this election year, the average homeowner’s tax bill will rise by 3.3% due to increasing real estate values.  And lest we forget, the budget includes new “taxes” in the form of fees, some of them quite hefty, for items like storm water management and sanitary sewer maintenance.

As we noted in a prior editorial, “Budget Platitudes”, most of the increases in the City budget are going to fund substantial rises in operating and capital expenditures by the Alexandria City Public Schools. Vice Mayor Justin Wilson noted that the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Joint City-Schools Facility Investment Task Force provide “a joint way forward into the future”.  We will be closely following how that process will work as past practice has been for the School Board to engage in poor planning, frequent changes to proposals and projects, a minimum of public input, and constant requests for balloon funding to cover ever expanding expenditures. The task force identified many areas where alternative solutions to specific problems were left unexplored.

The biggest and most contentious “rub” turned out to be affordable housing. We live in a desirable city where ever escalating land and development costs have become the biggest hurdles to building what is typically defined as affordable housing. From a developer’s perspective, without increased density bonuses, it simply is not economically viable to provide it on the scale desired by advocates. Most established neighborhoods, which is what the majority of Alexandria consists of, are not too enthused when they hear the term “increased density” and attendant issues such as traffic, parking, and open space. It is far easier to put money in a trust fund than to face angry constituents over a proposed development.

Currently, a portion of property tax monies are already set aside for affordable housing. Rather than choosing to add to those monies by raising this year’s real estate tax rate, Council has chosen to raise the tax on eating out. Combined with Virginia state tax, this will raise Alexandria’s meal tax to 11%, the highest in the metro region. Amid strong push back from the restaurant business community and the Chamber of Commerce, who claimed they were not consulted by Council members advocating the change, several proposals were floated in Council sessions, including dedicating the funds through a resolution rather than an ordinance. Councilman Willie Bailey, who formulated the proposal, responded that, “Some people say that we shouldn’t tie the hands of future Councils but I think we should.” Councilmembers Paul Smedberg and Tim Lovain joined the Vice Mayor in voting against the proposal, describing set asides as a poor budgeting practice. Mayor Allison Silberberg, voting with the pro-ordinance majority, indicated that in next year’s budget, if “the City Manager can find the money, we can revisit the additional meals tax”, which begs the question as to why she did not vote for a resolution, which can be reviewed from year to year.

We would ask why the Mayor and Ms. Pepper, Mr. Chapman, and Mr. Bailey do not question their own overall budget priorities and “find the money” rather than leaving it up to the City Manager, the restaurant business community, or taxpayers.