Alexandria City Council OKs budget with review committee to oversee restoring cuts

By Bill Sumrall
The Light

After an hour and 40 minute session Tuesday, Alexandria City Council members unanimously passed an amended 2010-2011 fiscal year budget.

The amended budget was approved April 27 on motion by Council member Jonathan Goins, seconded by Council member Chuck Fowler in a 7-0 vote.

The city’s proposed budget for 2010-11 is about $182 million, down from $189 million in the current fiscal year ending this month, according to published reports.

The proposed General Fund budget, which is the city’s operating funds, is $49.9 million, down about $8 million from $57.8 million, due to decreased sales tax revenues and increased spending for health insurance premiums and police and fire pension plans, published reports state.

During discussions, the Council’s Finance Committee chair, Everett Hobbs, offered an amendment, which city attorney Trey Gist read aloud to the audience crowding the chamber.

More than 30 people were in attendance, including representatives of several non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, as well as city firefighters.

The City Council commended its employees and their unions for their hard work in keeping their department budgets to scale and saving money through sound budgetary practices, according to the amendment read by Gist.

Gist stated that the amendment forms a special oversight working group tasked with making recommendations to the Council on a quarterly basis on sales tax recovery and budgetary spending.

Later, Council President Roosevelt Johnson said this group is to be called the “Budget Review Committee of the City Council.”

Members are to include Council members Goins, Hobbs and Harry Silver, along with City Finance Director David Crutchfield and City Director of Community Services Lisa Harris.

Gist stated that by May 18 this group will compile and publish a revenue forecasting report, so that when city makes its mid-year budget adjustment, revenues that were cut could be added back into the budget.

This addition to the budget is triggered if there is “significant economic recovery” in the form of increased sales tax revenue in excess of $1.5 million over that projected by the May 18th report, the amendment read by Gist stated.

Once the $1.5 million threshold is reached, funds would be restored by priority under three categories.

Under Category One:
— $200,000 in overtime in contract labor for public works would be restored;
— monies transferred to the city’s Utility Fund to subsidize operations of the Alexandria Zoo and city golf course would be reimbursed to the city’s General Fund;
— monies would be restored to fund police and fire department overtime and positions cut by attrition and removed from the budget; and finally
— public works overtime and contract labor would be restored to appropriate levels, particularly in the streets and sanitation department for grass-cutting and trash collection.

Category Two involves the pay matrix for fire employees; an appropriate merit raise for general and utility fund employees; purchase of operating general items required to perform union services; and increasing funds for special or operational NGOs, Gist stated.

Gist stated that this priority list will be recommended to the City Council by the special working group’s biannual report and should at a minimum include the Alexandria Mardi Gras Association, the Arna Bontemps African American Museum, the Arts Council, children’s sports and other recreational/educational programs.

Category Three involves all remaining partnership’s requests for funding or other NGOs and subject to funding only after funding for the other two categories is achieved, Gist stated.

Alexandria Mayor Jacques Roy assured Council members on various points, including the funding of school crossing guards.

Roy said negotiations with the all stakeholders, such as the school district, over the summer months will seek to ensure that not just the city is fiscally responsible and that pay for school crossing guards stays through the end of school in May.

“There will not be a lapse in service at all,” the mayor said.

Council member Harry Silver said, “Our job, whether up for election or not, is to look after the welfare of 50,000 citizens.”

Council member Ed Larvadain questioned the need for several offices, including publicist, which the mayor defended as saving money by doing such things as producing SPARC materials in-house.

SPARC stands for Special Planned Activity Redevelopment Corridors and is the city of Alexandria’s largest redevelopment project in its history, a $96 million infrastructure investment project in three separate Cultural Restorative Areas.

Those three CRAs are: (1) Downtown, Riverfront, and Lower Third; (2) North MacArthur Drive and Bolton Avenue; and (3) Masonic Drive and Lee Street.

“Do you think a city our size needs a publicist?” Larvadain asked.

Roy responded, “Yes, I do.”

Council member Myron Lawson repeated his concerns expressed during last week’s regular City Council session about funding the city’s golf course through the Utility Fund.

“I’d like to see a way for us to subsidize grasscutting,” Lawson said.

City Finance Director David Crutchfield defended the golf course subsidy, saying in effect that the golf course brings in more money than the zoo, which is also being subsidized by the Utility Fund in the new budget.

Lawson expressed concern about funding such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club. “I’m concerned about our investment in young people,” Lawson said.

Three people spoke during the public comment period:
— Gayle Underwood, who urged adequate funding for public safety;
— Patrick Searcy, representing the city firefighters union, who expressed support for the budget; and
— Daisy Dempsey, executive director for Seniors Aging with Grace and Energy program, or SAGE, who said it is a rainy day in funding programs for the elderly.

“SAGE was cut the same as all the other NGOs — there was a uniform cut,” Mayor Roy said.

“If the Council wants to engage in targeted cuts, we will certainly look at that. I might add that it is under this administration specifically that SAGE’s funds have increased considerably,” Roy said.

The mayor added that the city’s $100,000 one-time effort using surplus funds helped keep the Boys and Girls Club open. “They have specific needs too,” Roy said but noted “the record of what we’ve committed to speaks for itself.”

“It is a rainy day now but we are standing behind the employees in saying that the first-end money should go back to a bare bones employee complement that exists right now to provide for basic services, so that any new money that’s used, particularly if we’re talking about surplus, we think should go there first,” Roy said.

While complementing Dempsey for running a great program, “we just don’t have the revenue right now to support every request that everyone makes,” Roy said.

Discussion ensued, during which at one point Lawson and Larvadain pushed for a additional cutbacks in Council and city Administration budgets, with Roy asking for specifics on where the cuts should fall that could involve layoffs.

“I’m not going to be the scalpel (for layoffs) … you have to be,” Roy said.

City attorney Chuck Johnson said he oversaw $124,000 in cuts for legal division expenses, including a $4,800 pay cut for himself. “We’re running a bare bones operation,” Johnson assured Council members.

In response to a question from resident Von Jennings, who has already announced her intention to run for mayor, Hobbs repeated his amendment for restoring budget funds, to be triggered by a $1.5 million rise in sales taxes.

Jennings noted her point is whether or not such a trigger is achieved.

However, Roy said that indications are that sales taxes would improve in 2011.

“Right now, we have to prepare for the worse,” the mayor said.

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