This story has been updated since its original publication.
Local politics gets unmasked during budget hearings, and that was certainly true this week in Alexandria as City Council members wrestled with their priorities in preparation for their coming vote Monday.
What’s more important to Alexandrians in this election year: King Street tree lights remaining on all year round ($95,700) or restoring the loss of state funds for teen pregnancy clinics ($65,000)? Extending library hours ($50,000) or providing Meals on Wheels to seniors on Sundays ($60,000)? Choices like these abound as elected officials balance community needs versus the political danger of raising the city’s tax rate.
Tempers flared, which we will get to in a moment, and the always hot-button issue of raises for City Council members and their aides arose. That appeared to be a trial balloon launched at the behest of the mayor by a council member who’s not running for reelection.
The council wants to increase pay for city employees, who have gone five years without raises. They tentatively agreed to spend $400,000 to address salary compression in public safety salaries, and $500,000 to expand career ladders. That’s in addition to the $3.3 million that is in the base budget for merit increases.
Rob Krupicka, who is not running for reelection to the council, suggested adding $50,000 total for raises for all seven council members (including the mayor) and their aides, pointing out it’s been 10 years since the $20,000 part-time assistants received any raises at all.
“These jobs are very demanding and they put incredible pressure on your ability to hold a day job,” he noted. “Out of respect for public service, I think it’s important to reset the clock from time to time.”
Mayor William Euille noted that council pay increases have to be passed four months prior to a general election, and “in light of the action taken by Arlington County, I wanted to put this on the table. Not that I’m supporting it,” he said. “But if we’re going to do aides, I think we should do council members.”
Arlington County Board members just raised their pay to $50,127 (the chair gets $55,140). The 10 members of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors each make $75,000 since their last raise took effect January 2008. The Virginia Senate voted down a proposed raise in March, settling for their current $18,000 per year plus per diems. Alexandria council members make $27,500 while the mayor makes $30,500 per year.
Washington D.C. Council members make $125,583. Council chair Kwame Brown makes $190,000 and Mayor Vincent Gray makes $200,000.
If the Alexandria council does not act this year, it will have to wait three more years before it can take the issue up again. Krupicka and council member Alicia Hughes supported the measure, but no other council members spoke up for it.
Hughes’s attempt to add $60,000 for Sunday delivery of meals to seniors to next year’s budget, and her solicitation of a response from a local senior services representative, sparked an angry outburst from council member Paul Smedberg, who said Hughes wasn’t following the rules, and her action would open the door to other groups that want to make appeals for funds.
“This is exactly why we have a budget process in place, so we’re not put in this position,” he said.
Hughes noted that other proposals on the Monday night agenda also skipped steps in the process without similar outrage. But none other brought advocates to the council’s workshop.
Hughes also tried to move to reduce the city’s spending on contracted services, which elicited sharp responses from other council members.
“If you want to reduce contractual services, tell us what you don’t want to do,” said vice mayor Kerry Donley, who pointed out one of the biggest contracted items is for the DASH bus service. “[Your proposal] lacks specificity and discipline of the budget process.”
“It looks as if you’re trying to pay for all things you’re trying to pass without taking the heat for those you want to cut,” added Krupicka. “We actually outsource our trash collection because it’s cheaper.”
Hughes noted that there’s been a budget surplus for several years in Alexandria, and taxpayers shouldn’t have a tax rate increase if there’s extra money in the city’s budget.
“That’s a good thing!” several council members exclaimed at once.
There’s not yet a formal proposal for a tax rate increase. The current rate is 99.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, or $3,992 for a home assessed at $400,000. The council has scheduled its budget vote for Monday.