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Alexandria could raise tax rate by up to three cents

Old Town, Alexandria (Evy Mages/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

Beset by worries about overcrowded schools and aging infrastructure, the Alexandria City Council this week said it will consider raising tax rates by as much as three cents — triple what its city manager recommended.

“We’ve underinvested in capital [needs] for far too long. These bills aren’t getting any smaller,” Vice Mayor Justin Wilson (D) said in proposing the possible rate increase. “The enormity of the challenge does not mean we should not try.”

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The unanimous vote from the all-Democratic council does not actually raise taxes; that decision comes in May, when the budget is adopted and the tax rate is set. This week’s vote simply set a cap on how much the council would be able to raise tax rates for fiscal 2017, which begins in July.

City manager Mark Jinks last month proposed raising the current tax rate of $1.043 per $100 of assessed value by a penny to pay for what he called basic government services — addressing growing school enrollment, improving firefighter pay and adding parking enforcement officers.

Jinks also said the council could consider adding another cent to the tax rate to handle additional school needs, a new fire academy, affordable housing loans and other infrastructure needs.

Each one-cent increase in the tax rate raises about $3.8 million for the city and costs the owner of a $521,227 home — the average assessed value in Alexandria — an extra $52 per year. But even if tax rates don’t increase, many property owners have to pay more because the value of their homes have increased.

Would a one-cent tax increase be enough to cover this growing city’s needs?

Mayor Allison Silberberg (D) expressed concern about raising the advertised tax rate by three cents, rather than two, noting that “so many folks are concerned about being taxed out of their homes . . . I continue to be very uncomfortable with the third penny, even though I know this is the maximum.”

Alexandria is not alone in considering tax rate increases this spring. Fairfax County two weeks ago set its maximum tax rate increase at four cents per $100 of assessed value. In Maryland, Montgomery County is considering its biggest property tax rate hike in years.

But in Prince George's, County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) has proposed no tax rate increase. Arlington County's manager proposed a half-cent decrease, but the county board opted to advertise the current tax rate.

Alexandria’s tax rate, which hit a peak of $1.10 from 1998 through 2001, dropped to a modern low of 81.5 cents in 2006. It has climbed at a generally steady rate since.

At the same time, school enrollment has boomed from about 11,000 in 2000 to 14,670 this year, resulting in what council member Redella “Del” Pepper (D) said is “truly an embarrassment when we have students using basically closet space” for classrooms.

Council members say they are also worried about the many city-owned buildings that desperately need repair, as well as street paving and sidewalk fixes.

“We were elected to make hard decisions,” said new council member Willie F. Bailey (D). “Ten years from now, I don’t want to get looked upon as if I didn’t do the right thing.”

Pepper, the longest-serving council member, said the three-cent cap will give the council flexibility as the council works through the details of the budget and decides what is needed.

“We have to bite this bullet now,” she said.