My Side of the Fence

The danger isn't going too far. It's that we don't go far enough.

Advertised Tax Rate

Some days the City budget process reminds me of a Motely Crue mosh pit that I visited in 1991.  Other times it seems like we're going to mosh and everyone walks away, thinking better of it.  That second is pretty much what happened last night.  The Council was presented by the City Manager with 3 possible scenarios.  All had various line items and numbers that ranged from the existing tax rate to much, much higher rates.  Some had a line item for "Jail Fund" and others had one for "Community reinvestment" (or something close to that).  As always, several different variables that help the Council arrive at a rate.budget

Recall that the pain point here has been the creation of a "Jail Levy" by the City Manager.  That essentially removes revenue from the General Fund that is shared with the schools.  I was very encouraged by the discussion I heard last night.  Mr. Way was as analytical as ever – glad to see that – and I thought Mr. Elston had some interesting observations.  The Mayor offered what I thought was a strong and thoughtful commitment at the end to working with the schools and inside of our existing agreements.  He also encouraged the Council to do the same.  I was glad to see the Mayor do that.  His commitment to our community is undiminished and he's really good at that stuff.  Although I hate to lose him, I would reiterate my endorsement of his candidacy for Senate.

The Manager did offer that he thought the Council had the authority to set aside revenue from the sharing agreement as they see fit.  I agree that the Council has that authority but it's an authority that should never be exercised unilaterally.  If revenue is going to be "carved out" it should only ever be done in consultation with the schools.  It takes a lot more work to build trust between institutions than it does to tear it down.  In this particular instance, creating a "jail levy" seems wrongheaded to me.  In contrast to standing up an entire Fire department from scratch and funding a long-term capital plan, the Jail has been around since I was in short pants.  This seems like an operational cost that the city just doesn't want to pay.  Yes, it's expensive but the revenue sharing agreement is based on the expectation that as the City's costs go up, so do the schools.  This is, in fact, the case. 

It might be that this is just too big a nut to crack in a single year – we may need a hybrid solution where the city creates a levy that sunsets in a couple of years as the levy is merged into the operating budget.  I don't know, maybe that's too silly a construct but it's a thought.  In any event, the Council voted to advertise the Managers recommendation of $1.39.  What this means is that this is the highest rate that can be enacted by the Council.  I view this as a good thing.  I don't know whether or not the Council will elect to set the rate at $1.39 but it gives them room to maneuver and, given their comments last night, they are inclined to work with the schools to get where we all need to go.

I'm encouraged, but we'll have to keep watching to make sure our elected bodies work together!  This sort of uncertainty certainly highlights the need for longer-term planning.


  1. Andy, if you think back a couple of years, the concept of a levy to deal with PWC Shared Services and a "Community Reinvestment Fund" go back to John Budesky's time as CM.  John was proposing something similar for the Jail, and had proposed a $250K set-aside for a Housing/Community Fund.  I had talked to him about that last one and he had no real fixed idea about that money….and we kicked around some ideas such as it could be a reinvestment fund, possibly operated by the EDA.  Alas, the Council axed the idea of the $250K..and then John had to leave us.

    A set-aside for funding though as an excellent precedent in our neighboring City.  Manassas Park set aside 1 penny of the tax rate to pay down their debt service and get out of the hole they dug themselves into.  For their schools, it meant around $350K a year for five years out of their budget, and much to the suprise of many observors, the MPCS thrived!  Leadership in action!

    Shared Services:  actually there are two – (1) the 1976 agreeement which I gave you a copy of talking about most of the PWC services and mainly about the water; (2) the 1977 for funding of Aging Services & Programs established with the Commission on Aging after it became a tri-jurisdictional Commission.  Both documents never really "progressed" with time as once they were established, they have never really been reviewed.

    The first agreement was of course looked at in terms of the fight over the "Donut Hole" and that piece of turf's 30-year court battle.  The part of the water, as you know from your time on Council, came back around the other year with PWSWA having to pony up several million to the City.  But the 1976 agreement has never gone back to be relooked at since created in terms of years of growth – especially that simple one liner in it about Libraries.  It basically said the City Residents will be afforded the same access to PWLibraries as County Residents – but never clarified as the PWLS expanded and bonds went out.  Never clear in that document when we pony up bucks are we paying for operation of the Libraries or both operation and bonds to expand.  A one-liner is just not right.

    As for Aging Programs & Services:  it was agreed to by all three Cities to fund on a per capita basis as that is the requirement from Federal & State; and the population count would be from UVA Cooper Center.  It was set up with the COA since at that time, the Area Agency on Aging was located in Fairfax until 1979 when the State broke one AAA up into the five NOVA ones.  But, that agreement was never looked at to transfer the funding from COA to the AAA, it just occurs although the City documents do say "Commission on Aging" since that was the last legal backup document.  I shall be working on that change sometime this year.

    I have said before though, given how as time evolves, the PWC agreements should be looked at, and maybe a mechanism is needed in the City Budget to have a set-aside.  And also more detail in the Budget Book besides that one liner in Non-Departmental funds (a recommendation I am sending to Council and CM).

  2. I will echo Andy's comments.

    And offer the explanation that when money was allocated to pay the bill for the jails last year everyone (City and Schools) knew what we were doing. The problem lies in that I (and I'm guessing just about everyone else except for the City Manager) did not fully connect the dots and and have in our front lobe that the jail issue was an ongoing problem requiring an ongoing fix. The City Manager certainly knew this and his proposed budget reflects that. In hindsight, we probably should have established a formal "levy" to be shown on the tax bills last year. Just like the fire levy. Maybe we will get it right this year.

    Two other points. First, in the City Managers proposed budget the Schools will receive at least the amount that was shown in the 5 year forecast.There is no "shortfall" in Schools funding. Still, I realize that the Schools have serious needs and could use more funding. 

    Second, last night I proposed that the Council and Schools form a joint committee to review the current funding agreement and to explore options. I do not have a pre-set/preferred answer to this. I do think that it is important that we be pro-active and have the two bodies talking together. I do not want to repeat this years scenario. 


Comments are closed.