Alexandria forecasts $14.4 million operating budget gap in fiscal 2013

Alexandria expects to have a $14.4 million gap in its operating budget for fiscal 2013, the acting city manager told the City Council this week, because of a slower-than-expected rebound of real estate values.

In preliminary budget documents, public statements and an interview, Bruce Johnson said that revenues are going up by $9.6 million, or 1.7 percent, but that costs are rising by $24 million, or 4.2 percent.

Over the next several weeks, the council will work through the numbers and give the staff direction on whether to prepare budgets with cuts in services, increases in tax rates or both. The actual proposed budget will emerge in late January or early February, about five months before the start of the fiscal year.

This is the fifth consecutive year of predicted shortfalls, beginning in fall 2008, when “Lehman Brothers collapsed and we knew we were in a pickle,” said Johnson, the city’s former chief financial officer.

That year, the city cut $10 million in expenses, and each subsequent year had a combination of spending cuts and tax increases.

The $9.8 million budget surplus from the past fiscal year was split between reserve funds and emergency funds.

Despite expectations of a coming boom in population caused by already-planned development, tax revenues are likely to continue to trail expenses.

“There’s going to be a long period of constrained revenues,” Johnson said. “At best, we’ll keep up with the natural increases” in expenses.

Nearly 57 percent of Alexandria’s $560 million in revenue comes from property taxes, which depend on higher assessments, which come from higher sales prices. Locally, residential and commercial assessments are still rising by small amounts, although condo assessments are down. Still, income from property taxes is expected to rise $9.6 million, or 1.7 percent.

All other sources of revenue — auto registrations, sales tax, personal property tax, business licenses, communication, hotel and meal taxes — are the Seven Dwarfs to the property-tax Snow White, Johnson said.

Expenses, however, are likely to go up faster, by 4.2 percent, or $24 million, largely because of compensation, retirement costs and higher health-insurance premiums.

The loss of tax revenue from the shutdown of the GenOn power plant will remove about $1.5 million from the city’s accounts in 2013.

The projections do not take into account any additional money sought by schools or transit, and they do not factor in the $15 million to $20 million in spending that the council has previously identified as necessary for its strategic goals.

In addition, the uncertainty of the federal government’s spending haunts Alexandria, home to many federal employees, federal contractors and trade associations.

But budget gaps don’t stop investment in Alexandria or any other city: There are existing funds from federal dollars, bond revenue and developer money that are dedicated to pay for improvements in certain projects.

Alexandria is about to hire a new city manager, Rashad Young, of Greensboro, N.C. Young, who was also the city manager in Dayton, Ohio, said last week that he’s prepared to work in an environment “where desire and need outpaces financial growth” and that he learned in his previous jobs “how to set priorities and manage to the fiscal realities we are in.”

Patricia Sullivan seeks out news about Alexandria and Arlington County for the Washington Post.
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