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Budget Sparks Debate at Alexandria Town Meeting

Margaret Summers | 4/9/2014, 3 p.m.
Alexandria, Va., City Manager Rashad M. Young (Courtesy photo)

Alexandria, Va. City Manager Rashad M. Young presented the city’s proposed fiscal year 2015 budget at a town meeting on April 3 at the Charles E. Beatley Central Library.

It was planned as a straightforward program, illustrated with color slides of graphs projected on a screen, and a question and answer period involving the audience. But many of the approximately 150 participants in the library’s community meeting room expressed alarm and anger over proposed budget cuts designed to balance the budget.

“This is our seventh straight year of budgetary challenges,” said Young, 37, who is Alexandria’s youngest city manager and the first African-American in the job. “We have had expenditures greater than our revenue. Our [city’s] commitments have exceeded our revenue growth.”

Young said he was directed to prepare a budget that would address Alexandria’s many “master plans” for providing affordable housing and improving the lives of young people, among other initiatives. The budget would also have to fund the same quality and quantity of city services to residents without raising taxes.

The proposed $634.8 million budget includes no new tax rate increases, said Young, and provides $5 million to the city’s public schools for a total of $191 million.

But it also contains such trade-offs as ending the popular Senior Taxi program. Senior Taxi provides elders who are unable to use public transportation with door-to-door taxi service seven days a week. “I know Senior Taxi is a sensitive issue,” said Young “I don’t have the ability to focus on one program. There are many programs that support seniors, and this is only one of them.”

The proposed budget would also reduce seniors’ tax relief for those who own homes worth more than $500,000. “I had hoped to age in my home,” said one unidentified woman in the audience. “I love my house. I planted a garden. But I live on a fixed income and even when property taxes increase [based on assessed value of properties] my income stays the same. I want to live in Alexandria, but if we don’t get tax relief, I’m out.”

Balancing the budget also means a reduction in personnel across many city agencies.

“Why don’t you cut the employees who make the top salaries?” asked Maderia Turner from the audience. Turner, 53, said she has worked for Alexandria’s Parks and Recreation agency for 26 years, and is one of 27 employees who were laid off. “If you got rid of [the high salaried employees], we could keep our jobs!” Turner shouted.

Tonya Banks, 58, said she was also laid off from Parks and Recreation, and that the employees who lost their jobs are predominantly African-American and women over 50. “They’re replacing us with younger people who have college degrees,” said Banks. “We don’t have college degrees, but they don’t have the experience working with the children [who use the parks and recreation services] that we do. There’s no better feeling for parents than to know their children are safe [with us].”

LaDonna Sanders, 36, president of the Alexandria NAACP, called the proposed budget an atrocity. “This budget underfunds the city’s public schools,” said Sanders. “It does not address the achievement gap between African-American and Latino children and white children. That gap continues to grow.” Sanders said funding for public schools should be increased by $1.5 million.

Sanders also recommended that the city institute furlough days, hiring freezes or merit increases, and eliminate upper level management positions, rather than lay off personnel.

“In a city with approximately 300 homeless individuals, 4,800 families on food stamps, and 60 percent of students receiving free and reduced lunch, reductions in force will contribute to income inequality, and increase the number of families seeking supportive services,” Sanders said.

Young said agencies are working with laid off personnel to help them find jobs. “My [city manager] budget is going to be down 14 percent. We asked every department to make reductions [to achieve savings].”

The city council’s vote on Alexandria’s proposed fiscal year 2015 budget will take place during a special meeting on Thursday, May 1.

For information on leaving comments online and by email about the budget, go to www.alexandriava.gov/Budget.