In a year of new fees and a proposed real estate tax increase, the Alexandria City Council upped the ante by surpassing the recommended maximum tax rate to provide more funding to city schools.
City Manager Mark Jinks recommended a 2.7 cent maximum tax rate increase for FY2018. At its March 14 meeting, the council voted 6-1 to go above the recommended increase for a 5.7 cent increase. The FY2018 maximum tax rate will be $1.13 per $100 of assessed value.
“Every day, we learn more scary things about the revenue environment,” said Vice Mayor Justin Wilson, who proposed exceeding the manager’s recommendation. “It doesn’t really matter why we’re here, we’re going to have to work this out and collaborate with everyone who's committed to having this dealt with. We have to do things differently. What we’re doing right now is not working. We’re going to be in this situation every single year with significant tax rate increases to try and deal with this stuff. It’s going to be a failure to just pick a large number, provide that number, and go on our merry way. The amount of funding we’re doing, we have to do this collaboratively. We need to come up with a real plan, a joint plan the city can live to.”
The largest focus of discussions, both at the March 14 council meeting and among citizens at the special budget presentation the day before, was the school budget. The proposed operating budget includes a $7.5 million increase to Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS), or 3.5 percent above the current funding. This falls short of the $9.6 million requested by Superintendent Alvin Crawley. The Capital Improvement Plan proposed by the School Board proposed that the city fund $611 million in school capital projects over the next decade, triple the amount ACPS was previously scheduled to receive from the city. The funds are requested for the replacement of the Minnie Howard campus of T.C. Williams High School, construction of a new middle school, and replacement and modernization of five elementary schools. Jinks made it clear in budget presentations that, while the city is not allowed to dictate what projects the schools decide to fund, the strong hint was that the funding was exactly what was needed for a new ninth grade center, a new middle school and eventually a new elementary school. The funding was not, however, enough to fund the $194 million elementary school replacement and modernization proposed by ACPS. Additional CIP funding for the schools was presented as one of the unfunded supplemental CIP options.
The council made it clear that additional funding must also come with additional oversight and responsibilities.
“I’m supportive of this concept, but I am so tired of conversations we have had over the years with Capital Budget, particularly with the schools, “said Councilman Paul Smedberg. “That whole dynamic, that whole relationship, has to change. The way that relationship plays out is not respectful to anybody involved in it. I’m tired of it … this has to end.”
Smedberg proposed an independent blue ribbon panel that have oversight and approval for school projects. The idea had support from the council, but whether a panel emerges or what form it takes remains to be seen.
The lone opposing vote against the tax rate increase was Mayor Allison Silberberg. Silberberg said she supported Jinks’ proposed tax rate increase but not the higher number set by Wilson.
“Jinks’ budget was pro-education: proactive yet prudent,” said Silberberg. “We can’t do all that we want all at once, but this is a huge leap forward for our schools and other priorities … At a time of great uncertainty, this was a significant tax increase. For the first time ever, we’re introducing fees for stormwater as well as sewers that will increase the burden on taxpayers. Sewer rates will go up over time.”
Silberberg said that while the budget did not fully fund the School Board’s requested levels, it did provide ample funding to meet their needs.
“I believe this increase is too much to ask for our taxpayers to shoulder,” said Silberberg. “I have to take a stand and do what I think is best. The budget was prudent and proactive.”