This blog includes news about City Hall, city schools and other 22401 news.Pamela Gould reports on City Hall. You can reach her at 540-735-1972 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Robyn Sidersky reports on city schools. You can reach her at 540-374-5413 or email@example.com.
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Budget work session–What did we learn?
1. That council members aren’t interested in taking the real estate tax rate higher than the 58 cents proposed in the city manager’s budget, and some would like to keep from raising it even that much (current rate is 53 cents). But they are interested in spending more money on schools, salaries, trees and some other things. Where that money will come from is still a mystery.
2. That as budget deliberations begin, the news isn’t getting any better for city finances. A few weeks ago, city officials reported with some optimism that the rate of decline of city sales tax receipts appeared to be slowing with the January sales tax report. That bubble burst when the commissioner of the revenue discovered that the January sales tax number included $103,750 that had been mistakenly paid to the city by Stafford County businesses. With that money taken out, the decline in the city’s second-largest revenue source is accelerating, not slowing down. Budget officials now estimate that by the end of this fiscal year, the city will have taken in $10.5 million in sales tax receipts. That’s the lowest since the 2003 fiscal year.
3. Add to No. 2 on this list that the state government is still looking for cuts to make to balance its own budget, and those cuts could very well leave the city with more gaps to fill. "They can cut by cutting us, but we don’t have anybody to cut," Councilman George Solley said at last night’s work session.
4. That the decision last year to move from a four-year to a two-year reassessment schedule is proving to be a double whammy for the budget. For next year, it’s going to mean spending $167,000 on the reassessment process. For the 2010 budget, it could likely mean a decrease in assessed values, since the most recent assessment was performed before the housing market slowdown. There was no clear indication last night of whether all council members would completely rule out cancelling the next reassessment, which would change the assessment schedule yet again. For next year’s budget, it’s a $167,000 expenditure they could move somewhere else, or use to lower the tax rate increase (although it wouldn’t even get them half a penny on the rate). Councilman Matt Kelly said he, for one, would be against pushing back the 2009 reassessment. "We promised the citizens we would go to a two-year cycle, so that they would get the benefits of the ups and downs [in the market] instead of getting hit all at once," he said.
5. That council members differ in how deep they want to get into the details of the budget line items. Last year, Kelly and Councilman Marvin Dixon went through all of the applications for funding the city receives from outside agencies and proposed cuts that would have amounted to a penny on the pre-reassessment tax rate. They said at first that their proposals were comprehensive and shouldn’t be picked apart. But they were picked apart, and much of the funding they proposed to cut was restored. Kelly has hinted that he sees room to cut even further from some of this year’s outside agency contributions. He said he does not want to provide other groups money to raise their employees’ salaries in a year when city employees are not proposed to get any raise in their pay. Dixon rattled off a laundry list of specific line items he wants to look at more closely. After he spoke, Solley said, "I would hope that we avoid nitpicking the budget insofar as possible," adding that he thought the city manager had put forward a good proposal for a very bad year. Then Vice Mayor Kerry Devine said she "didn’t enjoy the process we went through last year," with the proposed outside agency cuts, and "I think we need to focus on the big picture."
The next step: another work session April 1, which will focus on the capital budget.
The city is looking at issuing $52.4 million in bonds for three major projects. The biggest is the $51 million courts complex. Another $941,000 would go toward replacing the bridge that takes Fall Hill Avenue over the Rappahannock Canal, and $500,000 would go toward preparing the old silt property at the end of Wicklow Drive for construction as the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation baseball complex. That money would improve the road that leads to that land from Fall Hill Avenue, grade it and bring utilities to it. Dixon mentioned last night that he thought that had showed up in the budget "out of the blue." As for the biggest chunk of the capital budget–the courts–the city manager’s budget message states that if the city doesn’t act swiftly on that front, it could find itself facing legal action from local judges, who can order localities to improve court facilities. Kelly said last night that he’d like to push that project back until the city’s financial situation is better. We’ll see next week whether anybody else thinks that’s an option.