May is just around the political corner, and most members of Alexandria's City Council appear to be running for reelection. But that doesn't necessarily mean taxes won't be going up, they say.
From schools to major sewer repairs, the city's budget needs are intense this year. Budget Director Lori Godwin estimates that the city will need an increase of at least $30 million and as much as $65 million for improvements in roads, schools and other capital projects in the next six-year cycle. And although the nation is still enjoying robust economic times, localities are not reaping the benefits because they do not collect income taxes and real estate assessments have been flat.
The realities led council member Lonnie C. Rich (D) to announce at a recent City Council retreat that increased taxes should be on the table in the coming budget cycle.
"I think the city is in very strong financial shape, and I think we have additional capacity to tax in order to provide very important capital needs," Rich said later in an interview.
"I think some of the things can't wait for seven, eight or 10 years, like some of the school needs. . . . It's an embarrassment that we have kids going to school in trailers. I can understand it happening every once in a while at one or two schools for a short period of time, but there are some schools that have had trailers for a decade," Rich said.
Other council members agreed, with the exception of lone Republican William C. Cleveland, who said tax increases should not be on the table.
"We should lower the debt service so we don't have to raise taxes," he said. "The city has always underestimated its budget. I don't really believe that we should even be having to look at taxes."
But Cleveland is alone in that opinion. Every other member of the City Council and Mayor Kerry J. Donley (D) agreed with Rich; a tax increase looms.
"It's not a case of whether there will be one or not," said council member David G. Speck (D). "It's when and how much. . . . The needs are well beyond anything we were budgeting for."
The city's tax rate is $1.11 per $100 of assessed value. That is a decrease from 1987, when the rate was $1.34, but an increase from 1990, when the rate had dropped to $1.045. The City Council raised the rate to $1.07 in 1994 and to $1.11 two years ago.
School needs have led to recent friction between the City Council and the School Board. Tracy Rickett, who heads the school's Budget Advisory Committee, publicly criticized the city for putting money toward a new animal center and parking garage instead of putting more for schools.
Vice Mayor William D. Euille (D) said at the time that the city was reviewing ways to raise more money for school construction and mentioned taxes as a possibility.
City Council member Lois Walker (D) agreed but held out some hope that the budget scenario would ease.
"We usually get these doom-and-gloom projections about how large [the gap between funding and city needs] is, sort of the worst-case scenario," she said. And then we begin to look at multiple-year budgeting, and we generally can come up with ways to do these things."
The City Council typically votes on the budget in May, and elections for city officials will be May 2. Rich has announced that he will not seek reelection, but other council members are expected to run.
"The assumption is that you never raise taxes in an election year," Speck said. "But our first obligation is to make the right decision for the city's long-term financial future. Which is another way of saying to the city manager, 'Make sure this is part of your consideration when you put together the budget.' "