City Council provided guidance to the City Manager for the FY 2015 budget at its last meeting. While much of the guidance is expressed in general terms, Council specifically directed the staff to prepare a budget with no increase in the real estate property tax rate and no increase in the car tax rate.
Last year both taxes were increased by amounts that taxpayers easily noticed when they received their tax bills. Clearly Council wants to hold the line this year and probably next which is, after all, an election year.
There are, of course, many places that more money could be spent. Employee pay has largely been stagnant, City infrastructure projects can multiply like rabbits and there are the public schools where the School Board has been agitating for a 4% increase in City funds. The issue with the School Board came to a head at a joint Council-School Board budget work session on Monday, December 2.
City budget projections show maximum revenue growth for FY 2015 to be about 1% or roughly $6 million. Giving a 4% increase to the schools amounts to about $7.5 million, which would consume 100% of the maximum revenue growth plus another ½ cent on the tax rate leaving the other two-thirds of city government with no increase at all. That is not realistic. Granting the School Board’s request would require another 2 to 3 cent tax increase on real property.
The School Board was adamant about their $7.5 million increase. This request is based on student growth projections. This year’s kindergarten projections were nearly 20% higher than actual enrollment, which raises the question of how much growth will really occur in the future.
The School Board has not presented any analysis that would justify the monies spent for many of the pricey programs put in place by the former superintendent. Board members’ responses to Council questions on this topic amounted to “give us the money and we will provide these studies at some future date.”
The School Board has failed to bring their budget process into harmony with that of the City. The Board will adopt their FY 2015 proposed budget on March 6. The City is legally mandated to advertise the maximum tax rate for FY 2015 no later than March 13. A week is hardly enough time to do a meaningful review of the Board’s proposal.
The Schools will be going through the FY 2015 budget process without a regular superintendent. The interim superintendent has long service in central office positions in Virginia and elsewhere but has never been a permanent superintendent. His resume does not appear to be long on budgetary matters.
As alexandrianews.org has discussed previously, the City is facing a very tight budget situation over the next ten years; a situation made worse by federal sequestration and government shutdowns. The School Board simply does not seem to understand the current fiscal climate.
The School Board, which is full of very nice, capable people, does not have many members who have actually run something and they seem puzzled by that aspect of their role. Boards and councils should not manage the day-to-day business of the institutions that they oversee. They should manage the larger affairs of these groups and must know how everything fits together and how it relates to the larger environment in which their institution operates. School Board members are busy people and many do not seem to have the time to put into their jobs. They look for easy ways and quick fixes which is an approach that simply will not work in today’s environment.
City Council is facing months of tough choices. Council members are completely correct in demanding the highest level of support and justification from those who come to them for money. Tough choices demand restraint. Increasing wages is always popular with employees but the dollars then constitute a future obligation that may be very difficult to meet. New programs cost money so old ones must be abandoned to free up funds.
After a year in the job this school board must step up their game. The City’s children are counting on it, as are the taxpayers who need to see good stewardship of their public funds demonstrated beyond doubt.