The city of Manassas is poised to begin its own extreme home makeover: building an elementary school, widening sidewalks in its historic downtown, improving drainage.
The catch is paying for it. Officials in the city of 40,000 are set to vote Monday on what would be the biggest real estate tax increase in years. It would push the average residential tax bill to $3,108 — a 7.1 percent jump.
The proposed increase has set off a firestorm in a community where local politics are dominated by Republicans who traditionally have been loath to boost taxes. But many say the overhaul is past due in a city trying to burnish its image — particularly for its school system, which many say lags behind its Northern Virginia peers.
Mayor Harry J. “Hal” Parrish II (R) says that the city “hunkered down” when the economy was bad over the past few years and that real estate tax bills have stayed essentially flat since 2009. With an improving economy, he said, now is the time for investment. The proposed increase would be the biggest in any one year since 2006.
“There is a moment, and I think it’s now, that you have to look at the investments you haven’t made and what investments you need,” Parrish said.
City Council member Marc T. Aveni (R) said that many of the projects have merit. But he questions whether the city should move forward on all of them at one time. He and council member Ian Lovejoy (R) have opposed the spending increases.
“This is all things everywhere for everybody,” Aveni said of the budget. “Where’s the moderation? Are higher taxes going to encourage people to move into the city?”
A majority of the six-member council has tentatively agreed to approve the increase, which would bring the tax rate to $1.39 per $100 of assessed value.
The biggest capital expense driving the proposed hike is a $38 million project to build a new Baldwin Elementary School. The current one was constructed in 1961.
Officials have debated replacing the school for about two decades. Residents and officials say that Superintendent Catherine Magouyrk, who is in her first year in the system, has been a key figure in the decision to move forward. To highlight Baldwin’s shortcomings, she opened up its doors to City Council members for tours, then offered the same for residents during a weekend open house.
The layout at the aging school looks something like a Candy Land game board. Wheels at two ends were once open-air courtyards. But that was in the 1960s. Those courtyards have long since been enclosed to create 20 classrooms with an awkward pie shape. Storage closets partially block doors, and technology and WiFi connections are unreliable.
Rain that hits the roof can sound like radio static or, in a downpour, a freight train. When air-conditioning units kick on, the hum can become a roar. Many teachers find the rooms are either stifling or chilly. Students in kindergarten through fourth grade weave their way around desks stored — for lack of a better place — in hallways.
On a recent day, Katy Keegan, 26, led a math review for her third-graders. A timer beeped every two minutes and the command “Scoot!” was given as the pupils shuffled between green pieces of paper, math problems beckoning. Something like silence ensued. Pencils were sharpened. Hands shot up with questions.
Then the rain started. “It sounds like music!” one student said. Keegan implored her 20 charges to focus. “It is rain,” she said. “You’ve seen it before. You’ve heard it before.”
Keegan said in an interview that she likes to keep her students moving. If the room were bigger and technology easier to set up, she could install stations with interactive computer programs, she said.
“A lot of the space is used just to store things and not to utilize it for learning,” she said.
Magouyrk said that having adequate public buildings sends a message. “In order to have a strong community, you need to have strong schools and good facilities,” she said.
Manassas Tea Party Chairman Dan Arnold said he understands many of the city’s capital needs but questions the timing. He recently delivered a petition with 250 signatures saying that the council should reconsider the tax hike. Federal and state taxes are going up, and so is the cost of living, he said. Federal budget cuts known as sequestration have affected many residents. City leaders, he said, couldn’t have picked a worse time.
“Everyone is looking for somebody to give us some relief,” Arnold said. “We hoped City Council would lend a sympathetic ear.”
Even with the increase, Manassas would have the lowest average residential tax bill in Northern Virginia at $3,108, according to city data.
By comparison, surrounding Prince William County, whose government also is dominated by Republicans, recently approved a 2.3 percent increase, pushing the average residential real estate tax bill to $3,392. More liberal Arlington County approved a 4.6 percent increase that boosts the average bill to $5,278.
Maurice Gerson, a former Manassas City Council member who has advocated for public projects, said upgrades in classrooms and in the city’s Old Town historic district are key to attracting new business and residents.
“Nobody wants to raise taxes,” Gerson said. “The problem is, unless we start investing and improving the city, it’s going to cost people a lot more later on.”