For the first time since 2008, the City of Alexandria does not have to contend with a shortfall in its budget. But, for more than three hours on Monday, Alexandria residents, employees and business owners voiced disapproval with the City Council over the city manager’s proposed fiscal 2012 budget.
There were more than 60 speakers at the public hearing. More than $2.7 million "was earned by parking enforcement last year on ticket revenue; $203,000 was earned in booting revenue last year. All this revenue earned by a group of employees who have to struggle daily with how to feed their children and pay their bills,” said Sheryl Fuller, a city parking enforcement officer. “I implore you that your city employees have sacrificed enough. For years we have gone without merit increases, haven’t had a cost of living raise in over four years, and, as you know, if you go to the gas stations, costs have risen tremendously.”
Glenda DaSilva of the Alexandria Government Employees Association agreed. “A pension is a promise to reward and take care of employees for their years of hard work and commitment,” she said. “It should not be used to close a gap in a temporary budget shortfall. We value the city. We hope you value us – your employees.”
In his proposed FY2012 budget, City Manager Jim Hartmann asked council to increase the minimum city employee share of health insurance premiums. The budget also proposes a 1 percent minimum in the employee share of the cost of city supplemental retirement benefits, and a one percent increase in police officer and firefighter pension contributions.
“We are in considerably better financial shape than most state and local governments nationwide and only a few of our neighbors can come close to matching our current financial condition,” Hartmann wrote in the budget proposal. “The investment in our economic development structure and strategy over the past few years is now beginning to yield results. We are well positioned to achieve the measure of financial sustainability we all desire, and we are poised to have an operating budget and capital improvement program that is structurally balanced for the long term.”
Officer Michael Kochis is the president of the Alexandria Police Union. “In Alexandria we are not going bankrupt. The city has a surplus,” he said. “The police and fire pension plan is more than just a retirement bill… Unlike those in the private sector, we do not receive bonuses, high salaries or holidays off. Our pay is consistently ranked lower than other officers in surrounding jurisdictions… Police officers and firefighters currently contribute 8 percent every two weeks into our retirement. The proposed increase to 9 percent would not be a big deal if made sense, or if someone could simply tell us why.”
Sheriff’s Deputy Chris O’Dell is president of the Alexandria Sheriff’s Association. “Of the 2,021 city employees that would be affected by adding this proposed 1 percent toward the cost of the city’s supplemental retirement plan, 49 percent of those employees would bring home less money every payday, when coupled with the increase in employees’ share of health insurance,” he said. “In some cases, this could result in $1,800 less per year for the employee and their family. When examining the $553.4 million proposed FY2012 budget, $1.6 million is extremely small when compared with the other avenues that this money can be taken from. This money is coming directly out of the pockets of deputies and other city employees. With projections that revenue in the city is increasing, why are employees being asked to sacrifice again?”
In December, Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Morton Sherman asked the city for $372.6 million for the ACPS 10-year Capital Improvement Plan. Hartmann’s proposal recommends funding for the capital program to remain at the same level as the Approved FY 2011 – 2020 CIP, which totals $158.1 million over 10 years.
“We have 441 students in a school where capacity is said to be 300 and maximum allowable student population is 360... We have two hallway restrooms for 441 students, one for each gender,” said Carrie Sullivan, president of the George Mason Elementary School Parent Teachers Association. “Our cafeteria is overcrowded and noisy, not because our children are poorly behaved but because the cafeteria was not built to accommodate the number of children we now serve. Our schools are aging and many of them are at more than capacity.”
City Council may have to contend with an upset business community should they pass a 12.5-cent add-on tax on commercial properties in the FY2012 budget. Over the next 10 years, the tax would generate $18.2 million for prioritized city transportation improvement projects. Many, including some members of council, believe Alexandria is falling behind Arlington and Fairfax counties in regards to transportation improvements. The proposed project list includes citywide improvements for metro stations, the Beauregard Corridor, street widening and bridges and trails.
“We would encourage the city and the council to reexamine that list and look at it in a different light as opposed to a collection of projects that might have been on the table in the past,” said architect Skip McGinniss, who spoke on behalf of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. “We don’t believe Arlington and Fairfax [counties] are good models for the transportation improvements that are needed in the City of Alexandria. If you look at the density that you have at Rosslyn, Crystal City, Tysons Corner, Ballston – those densities exceed anything we’re going to do in Alexandria by factors of four to 10. And you can imagine that the revenue that those are generating are substantially higher that you will be able to obtain here.”
Alexandria Mayor Bill Euille said the list of proposed projects has been carefully crafted. “The priority list is… something that has had a lot of play not only from staff, but the Arlington City Council, other citizen groups, other business groups as well as the Transportation Commission. We’ve had public hearings on that list, work sessions and joint work sessions and we will continue to modify the list as appropriate and reasonable as we go through this whole exercise prior to budget adoption on May 2.”
Regardless, the add-on tax may hit businesses hard. “The city has increased the average assessment for commercial property by an average of 4 percent, and on some properties as much as 10 percent,” said Mike Anderson, chair of the chamber and owner of Mango Mike’s Caribbean Restaurant. “So, the tax for the commercial property owners will be increasing even without consideration of the add-on tax. So, if you’re getting 12.5 cents and your property is up 10 percent, you’re paying 22 percent more tax. That’s a big number. ..That’s money that we can’t spend on advertising, on building the business with more jobs, more salaries.”
Republican Councilman Frank Fannon said that raising commercial property taxes could drive away business. “Right now our commercial properties are a little over 10 percent vacant in the city, and I’m very concerned if we were to implement this whole tax, it would continue to drive up the vacancy rate. It would be a policy that would give us the opposite effect of what we would ultimately want,” he said.
But the tax may be necessary, said Vice Mayor Kerry Donley. “In some respect it’s not about our desire, but about our capacity of what we can do. Unfortunately a lot of what we have been doing in the city the last few years has been dependent on federal and state revenue,” he said. “There are pressures on the CIP. There is a reliance on federal and state dollars and this is our opportunity to try to take initiative to try and make some transportation improvements in a very competitive Northern Virginia region. Our neighbors have made and are making some very significant financial investments in transportation infrastructure. They’re doing that because they see a return on that investment later on.”
Council will next hold a joint work session with the School Board at 7 p.m. on Monday, Mar. 14, at George Washington Middle School. The budget will be adopted on May 2.