The Next Campaign
I try to keep politics out of this monthly newsletter.
If you have not been receiving my campaign updates and you wish to receive updates on this new campaign,
please drop my campaign a line
and we'll get you on the list for campaign updates.
Join the Pothole Patrol!
The City is kicking-off its annual "Pothole Patrol" as we work to address the potholes that develop over the winter.
Old Town Home & Garden Tour
The tour, hosted by the Garden Club of Alexandria and the Hunting Creek Garden Club, will occur throughout Old Town.
Tickets are $45 in advance and $55 on the day of the tour.
Last month the City began mulch deliveries.
Mulch is available in a full or half truckload, and each delivery ranges from $50 - $100.
Alexandria's Earth Day
The City's Annual Earth Day festival returns on Saturday, April 28th.
The event will be from 10 AM until 2 PM. I'll see you there!
GMU Summer Camps
Looking for a summer camp for your kids?
George Mason University offers a wide variety of summer camps and programs at its multiple campus locations in the areas of art, technology, academics, sports, recreation, radio, forensics, debate, and more.
Spring Clean Up
Beginning Saturday April 14th and concluding May 5th, a different section of the City will go each week.
Is your club or organization interested in having a speaker?
The George Mason University speakers program is comprised of over 100 faculty and staff who provide lectures and guest presentations on hundreds of topics to organizations and businesses free of charge.
Contact Sarah Gallagher at 703-993-8761 or via email for more information.
DASH Public Meetings
On Wednesday the 4th from 6 PM until 7 PM, a community meeting will be held at Ramsay Elementary at 5700 Sanger Avenue.
On Thursday the 5th, from 6:30 PM until 7;30 PM, a community meting will be held at Mount Vernon Recreation Center at 2701 Commonwealth Avenue.
The Board of Directors will then hold a Public Hearing on Wednesday April 11th at 5:30 PM at City Hall.
The event, scheduled at Lee Center (1108 Jefferson Street) will have a wide-range of exhibitors from organizations providing support for previously incarcerated women and men.
Bike Friendly Community
The City has applied to be certified as a "Bicycle Friendly Community" by the League of American Bicyclists.
Happy Easter and Happy Passover to all those celebrating!
April 25th is an exciting day in Alexandria. We put our generosity to the test.
April 25th is
This annual tradition is a coordinated one day giving initiative to support numerous non-profits that serve our community.
Last year, Alexandrians gave over $1.59 million to Alexandria non-profits doing critical work for our residents.
Please join me as we work to top that number this year!
Budget Process Continues
From 2002 until 2009 the City was enjoying the run-up in the residential real estate market. Our General Fund budget increased by an average of 6.5% per year. The work force in City Government grew from 2,229 Full Time Equivalents (FTE) to 2,660 FTEs during that period.
In Fiscal Year 2010, the bottom fell out as the Great Recession took hold. The City adopted its first negative budget in at least 40 years, reducing spending from Fiscal Year 2009 to 2010 by over 2%. From 2010 to 2018, the General Fund budget increased by an average of 3.4% per year.
Sustaining an average budget growth of 3% per year with 4% annual student enrollment growth, employee healthcare costs increasing far above rates of inflation, long-deferred infrastructure needs, and ever-escalating funding challenges from Metro is impossible.
The most important decision the City Council makes each year is the adoption of the annual operating budget and capital improvement program. The operating budget generally funds the ongoing costs of government (primarily personnel), while the capital budget funds one-time expenditures that provide the community with an asset (new schools, new roads, new playing fields, transit buses, etc).
Under current rates, projections are that we would experience an anemic 1.9% revenue growth. That would provide an additional $14 million of new revenue available for both the operating and capital budgets.
Providing City employees with scheduled "merit" increases alone costs an additional $5 million.
The combination of the increases for WMATA, our schools and and our employees' scheduled merit increases depletes ALL of the new revenue available for this upcoming fiscal year.
In the fall, the City Council approved budget guidance that required the City Manager to present a budget that included no increase in the real estate tax rate of $1.13. Pursuant to state law, the Council was required to "advertise" the highest tax rate that we might consider during this budget process.
On March 14th, the Council voted unanimously to advertise the current rate of $1.13
. In adopting our budget, we can now choose a rate below the current rate, but no higher.
As a result, the City Manager was forced to make significant choices to present a balanced budget as required by law.
The proposed general fund operating budget is $742.3 million, an increase of 1.9% from Fiscal Year 2018. With $4.3 million of reductions, the City government spending is itself only proposed to increase by 0.3%.
That restraint on the City side allowed the City Manager to propose full funding of the Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent's requested operating transfer.
The City Manager has proposed 69% of the new revenue to go to the Alexandria City Public Schools, 22% to transit programs and only 7% to the remaining City budget.
For the past two years the City Council has directed significant new resources into our Capital Improvement Program to address decades of under-investment in our City's infrastructure.
The City Manager's proposed 10 year Capital Improvement Program continued the focus on expanding infrastructure investment. The 10 year plan proposes spending $2.1 billion driven largely by $453.8 million to address Sanitary Sewer projects, $601 million for transportation projects including WMATA capital funding, $438.1 million of funding for Alexandria City Public Schools capital projects, $153 million for City facility needs and $60 million for land acquisition for both City and ACPS facilities.
For the first time in quite a few years, the 10 year Capital Improvement Program adopted by the School Board and the funding for that 10 year program proposed by the City Manager are largely aligned. That is a significant milestone. The alignment is a testament to the difficult decisions made by City Council over the past two budgets, the work of the School Board to align to that new revenue picture, and the hard work of the Task Force.
I look forward to working with the residents of this City to adopt a budget that is reflective of our values as a community.
In local government the most controversial decisions that come before the City Council relate to the use of land. As
a "Dillon Rule" state
, Virginia provides local government with only the powers explicitly provided for by the General Assembly. Land use planning and zoning are one of the areas where the limitations of local authority are most evident.
For the City this means that most of the development that comes before the Planning Commission and City Council is not by-right. In many circumstances in the City, we try to avoid the by-right land-use, and instead trade additional density with the landowner to encourage more compatible development and receive developer-funded amenities to benefit the community.
This "trade" becomes a staple of the local land-use process. Recent small area plans in Alexandria have highlighted this arrangement. In the Waterfront Small Area Plan, the City traded additional density in exchange for acres of new open space and badly needed flood mitigation. In the Beauregard Small Area Plan, we traded additional density for acres of new open space, hundreds of new committed affordable housing units, transportation improvements, a new fire station, and more. In the North Potomac Yard Plan, we traded additional density for funding for a new Metro Station, new open space, infrastructure improvements and more. The list goes on.
The premise can be simple: the City provides additional density and the developer cedes some control over the development process.
Despite this typical practice, there are some areas of the City where this arrangement doesn't work. If additional density is not desired, the landowner maintains the right to proceed with by-right development. In those cases, the City now becomes a ministerial agency, largely restricted to ensuring that the landowner meets the rules of the underlying zoning.
In November, the Planning Commission heard this case and determined that under the rules of the zoning in place on the site, the application met the criteria.
The dominant issues raised before the Planning Commission were concerns regarding the placement of the homes, impacts on the natural resources on the property (trees and water resources). and the lot orientation.
In response to concerns raised, one of the homes was moved slightly, and half of the trees on the site were proposed (voluntarily) to be protected with a perpetual easement. In addition, existing water resources were proposed to be protected with a 50 foot buffer as required by City Code.
Neighboring property owners, feeling as though the Planning Commission was incorrect in their interpretation of the law, appealed the case to the City Council. An exceedingly rare event, the City Council then held a hearing on the appeal.
After a few hours of difficult and complex testimony, the City Council voted 6-1 to uphold the Planning Commission's decision.
This is one of those rare situations where the City Council is not placed in a policy-making role, but instead in the role of interpreting our zoning code and ensuring compliance. While there were certainly aspects of this application I would have preferred be changed, that was not the question before the Council according to the law.
The City was recently notified that pro se plantiffs have challenged the City Council's decision in Circuit Court.
I am hopeful that this case can be resolved swiftly in court.
Aging in Alexandria
The fastest growing population in Alexandria are those over 60 years of age. As the "boomers" age, their numbers are projected to double in our City from 15,473 in 2000 to over 30,000 in 2030.
One of the goals adopted in the plan committed the City to address housing needs to ensure a place for our aging population to "age in place." The recommendations cited the need to evolve our land-use policies to ensure a place for these uses in our community.
While the City still has a long way to go in addressing these critical needs, this year we are taking two significant steps forward.
In approving this facility, the applicant agreed to provide two units at deeply subsidized rates to income-eligible residents of our community.
In approving this facility, the applicant agreed to provide two studio units supported by
to ensure that not only the housing, but the services are affordable for some of Alexandria's residents.
With the new Slverado facility opening very soon, and the Sunrise Senior Living facility opening in a few years, Alexandria has made two significant steps to ensure a place for our aging population in our community.
Fighting For Lower Water Rates
Alexandria remains one in a relatively small list of Virginia jurisdictions that have a private water utility.
Virginia American Water Company
(VAWC), a subsidiary of a large national company, provides the water supply to Alexandria's residents and businesses.
As a private utility, VAWC is subject to the authority of the
State Corporation Commission
in Richmond. In 2014, VAWC applied to the Commission in order to create a new "Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Service Charge."
As proposed, the new charge was to assist VAWC in collecting the resources to perform system-wide maintenance.
While the City certainly supports the maintenance efforts that are badly needed to protect our City's water supply, we do have concern about the mechanism.
At my request, the City filed with the Commission in opposition of
VAWC's request. The City's concern was that the change proposed by VAWC removes a significant "check" (the review by the State Corporation Commission), that exists to ensure the proper process is followed before rates are raised.
The Commission appointed a hearing examiner to look at the facts in the case and make a recommendation. The
response of the hearing examiner
in June of 2015 supported the City's perspective.
Yet at the end of October 2015,
VAWC applied to the State Corporation Commission for another rate increase
. The increase took effect on April 1, 2016 and increased the typical residential customer's bill by approximately $4 per month. Additionally, they again applied for permission to create the new infrastructure services charge. Under state law, the increase goes into effect, but if the Commission lowers or eliminates the increase, every customer will be entitled to a refund.
I'm hopeful we can continue our efforts working with VAWC to improve our aging water infrastructure but respect our ratepayers and good process at the same time.
Host a Town Hall in Your Living Room!
My regular series of Town Hall Meetings continue!
You supply the living room and a bunch of your friends and neighbors. I will supply a member of the Alexandria City Council (me) with the answers to any of your questions about our City.
Just drop us a line and we'll get a Town Hall on the calendar! Thanks for the interest!
Getting Employee Compensation Right
Local government is a people-intensive business. The services that residents of our City rely on every day are provided by a skilled and dedicated workforce. In a region such as ours, attracting and retaining such a workforce is a competitive business.
Fully 67% of the City's General Fund (not including schools and debt service) expenditures are personnel costs. including both salary and benefits. In this year's budget, that is $228 million.
All City employees who are not at the end of the pay-scale qualify for a "merit increase" ranging from 2.3% to 5%. Funding those increases for all eligible City employees requires an additional $5 million this year, over a third of all available new revenue at current tax rates.
Balancing the level of benefits provided with the ability to attract and retain the best workforce is a challenge for the City.
In recent years, the City has made a variety of changes to employee benefits. This was in an attempt to mitigate the costs of employee compensation on the City's taxpayers.
One of the largest compensation costs is providing health care coverage to our employees and their families. Like most employers, we have seen very large increases in these costs over the past two decades. Today the City spends nearly $25 million a year on healthcare for our employees and families.
Alexandria became one of the first jurisdictions to comply with this new standard
and we created a trust fund to save dollars for these future obligations. The City's unfunded liability for this obligation is now $57.7 million, a decrease of $10.7 million from the previous year. This prudence protects taxpayers in the future from large unexpected obligations. It also protects employees from sudden benefit reductions due to an economic downturn.
Previously members had a choice between accepting an annuity upon retirement and a lump-sum payment. The lump-sum payment is based on 30-year US Treasury bond rates, which has been decreasing for decades. As a result, the lump-sum payment was unduly lucrative compared to the annuity option. To protect the health of the fund and save money, the City Manager proposed a change to how the lump sum is calculated.
While the changes that have been made to benefits over the years have reduced the costs to taxpayers, there is recognition that we must continue to invest to attract and retain the employees who serve our community.
In the City Manager's proposed budget this year, he has suggested new funding to increase the lowest hourly wage of any City employee to match a "living wage" of $15 per hour. To support those City employees beginning or expanding their families, the City Manager's proposed budget has included funding for 6 weeks of paid parental leave for eligible employees.
To begin the process of meeting
the City's compensation philosophy
, the City Manager set aside $1.5 million to address some of the pay inequities existing within the Police Department and Fire Department. The City Manager's plan was to allow this money to serve as seed money for a multi-year effort to address these issues.
It has become clear that the $1.5 million will be insufficient to address these issues. I am optimistic that the Council can identify additional resources during this budget process to ensure that we can attract and retain those employees that regularly put their lives on the line to protect the safety of our community.
With every change to employee benefits and compensation, the City must consider the competition for employees between neighboring jurisdictions. There are ways to mitigate the taxpayer costs of employee compensation and benefits but they must not come at the expense of the service level that residents of Alexandria expect and demand.
Dedicated Tax Revenue
In 2003, faced with rapid development activity that was diminishing our City's available open space, former Councilman David Speck
the creation of an Open Space Fund, and
suggested the dedication of 1 penny of the real estate tax rate to be transferred to that fund each year to fund the acquisition and preservation of open space in our community.
The City Council in 2003 created this new dedication. Since that time, those funds have enabled the City to purchase acres of open space around our City--both active and passive spaces that have benefited our quality of life.
A few years later, in 2005, faced with the rapid loss of housing that was affordable to middle and low income residents, former Councilwoman Joyce Woodson and former Councilman Ludwig Gaines
the dedication of an additional penny of the real estate tax rate to fund the creation and preservation of affordable housing.
The City Council in 2005 created this new dedication. Since that time, those funds have enabled the City to work with private and public partners to create new housing, and preserve threatened housing that has remained affordable to middle and low income residents struggling to remain in our City.
During the budget downturn, both of the dedications were reduced to fund little more than the debt service on open space acquisitions and affordable housing development that had already occurred. In the proposed budget this year, the dedication for affordable housing remained at 0.6 cents, and the dedication for open space remained at 0.3% of real estate tax revenue (the open space dedication was changed to a percentage of revenue a few years ago).
Over the past decade, the Council's appointed Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee has repeatedly opposed the practice of dedicating real estate revenue in their
to the Council, citing the limitations such a practice can have on the flexibility in the City's budget process.
While I have strongly supported initiatives to preserve and create open space, and I have strongly supported initiatives to preserve and create affordable housing, I share the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee's opposition to the advance dedication of tax revenue.
In my view, such a dedication subverts our annual budget process and places one type of expenditure (in this case open space and affordable housing) above all others.
If Council supports funding open space acquisition or affordable housing development, it has an annual opportunity to budget money to do so.
The challenge of advance dedication is particularly troublesome in the current environment we are in; an environment that will necessitate cuts to City spending each year. With dedicated real estate tax revenue, our City Manager will be forced to propose a budget with potentially devastating cuts to essential services, while maintaining the dedicated funds for affordable housing and open space. That choice may not be in keeping with the values and wishes of our community.
This was last a big issue for the City Council in adoption of our FY 2014 budget, 5 years ago.
In adopting our budget that year, the
Council voted unanimously
to remove those dedications to provide the Council with greater flexibility.
In the aftermath of that vote, there were
efforts to reconsider
the Council's action. In the end, the Council voted 6-1 to reaffirm our decision to remove the dedication for Open Space, and voted 5-2 to
retain the dedication for Affordable Housing
. I was in the majority on the first vote, and in the minority on the second vote.
There was a very worthwhile debate of the Council on both of these items. I encourage you to
watch the video
to understand the perspective of each member at the time.
I am hopeful and optimistic we can find ways to budget additional resources to address affordable housing development while doing so consistent with good budget practice.
Let me know your thoughts.
The nation's crisis of drug abuse has been well-publicized in the media. Within Virginia the increase has been driven by heroin and fentanyl, and the combination of the two.
During the middle of the current fiscal year, the City Manager added two additional resources to our Acute and Emergency Treatment section within the Department of Community and Human Services to help expand our capacity. In Alexandria, we have long provided funding supports to work to address the underlying causes of addiction.
While we have seen increases in overdoses in our City, we have been fortunate to not see the same levels of overdose activity as elsewhere in the Commonwealth and our nation. We must maintain vigilance and awareness, as well as invest in prevention programs with real results.
A New Plan for Combined Sewer System
In 95% of our City, stormwater (run-off) is collected and returned to rivers and streams with very little treatment to remove pollutants accumulated from roads, parking lots, and other surfaces upon which it falls. Separately, sanitary sewage is sent to the
Alexandria Renew Enterprises wastewater treatment facility
where it is treated and later returned to waterways as clean water.
However, in a 540-acre section of Old Town, a Combined Sewer System still collects both sanitary sewage and stormwater together and sends it to the wastewater treatment facility for its final disposition.
In addition to the impact that this has on the cleanliness of our rivers and streams, this type of overflow is strictly regulated by law primarily the Clean Water Act.
The City has always been in compliance with all permits for the operation of the system, releasing amounts of sewage within the limits permitted and has conducted targeted sewer separation activities along with redevelopment and other planned activities.
The 2013 permit required the City to work with the community to adopt a new Long Term Control Plan. The plan that was prepared reduces
the presence of dangerous bacteria in the flow that is returned to the water. The new plan was submitted to the state on schedule.
As a result of the new legislation, the City must work to engineer and implement a solution to one of the Combined Sewer outfalls on a more accelerated timeline than we believe feasible.
The challenge is significant. We certainly did not plan to rectify this outfall on the timetable that the Commonwealth has provided. Even with the unreasonable timetable, Alexandria remains ahead of many jurisdictions around the nation on this issue. Stormwater planning and work coordinated with redevelopment activity has left us better situated than most. This is not a new issue for Alexandria.
To fund these obligations, the City Council adopted a 30% increase in the Sanitary Sewer Maintenance fee that is paid on Alexandria Renew Enterprises bills across the City. The estimates are that ANNUAL 30% increases will be required going forward.