Newsletter

Just as the school resource officer debate started to cool down, things have started heating up between the City Council local first responder unions and city leadership over pay issues.

At the same time, city officials are entering the final stretch before election day on Tuesday, Nov. 2., which among other statewide elections will see candidates competing for the City Council, mayoral and School Board seats in Alexandria.

On the bright side, the local woman who was looking for help to pay for surgery earlier this week met her GoFundMe goal.

Top stories

  1. Bonchon Chicken coming to Bradlee Shopping Center in December
  2. City to host historical discussion about Confederate statue removal
  3. Yates Pizza Palace plans go cold, but could reheat as food-prep space
  4. Poll: Are you planning on getting a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot?
  5. First responder unions say underfunding is a crisis in Alexandria, but city officials say it’s a false alarm
  6. Alexandria community champion and pastor Matthew Ian Gillette dies unexpectedly
  7. Alexandria surpasses 14,000 cases of COVID-19, numbers of unvaccinated sick kids ‘unexpectedly’ high
  8. Local woman seeks help to pay for tumor removal surgery
  9. Two Metro Yellow Line shutdowns scheduled for 2022
  10. Alexandria Police say quarrels over music may account for some school violence
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At an upcoming Alexandria City Council meeting on Tuesday (Oct. 26), City Manager Mark Jinks is scheduled to present a planned mid-year pay increase for city employees, though local unions that have been pushing for pay adjustment say it’s far from enough.

According to the docket, the proposal will be to restore a compensation initiative that had been eliminated last year because of COVID-19 revenue losses.

The report notes that the plan is to:

  • Implement the compensation initiatives eliminated in the FY 2021 budget
  • Provide a one-time $1,000 bonus for full-time employees and pro-rated for part-time employees
  • Provide funding for Deputy Sheriff positions one-time bonuses where state funding was not provided

The compensation initiative is a 1.5% rate boost to all city pay scales, with increases for various positions like captains and lieutenants in the Police Department and Sheriff’s Office, as well as for the deputy fire chiefs and chief deputy sheriffs.

The item also “indicates that compensation will be a priority for funding consideration as part of planning for the upcoming FY 2023 proposed City operating budget.”

Earlier this week, the Alexandria Committee of Police, IUPA Local 5, and Alexandria International Association of Firefighters Local 2141 attacked city leadership over employee pay and funding for programs within those departments. City officials answered that these concerns were being blown out of proportion as a collective bargaining technique.

“This suggestion is almost as insulting as the 1.5% pay increase that the City Manager has proposed to solve our understaffing problem,” the union said in another joint press release. “Our members have been underpaid for years, and the City’s own benchmarks show that they aren’t meeting the promise of paying at the midpoint of our regional comparators.”

The release pointed to Montgomery County’s $10 per hour premium pay for frontline workers as an example — though Montgomery County police have also expressed disgruntlement over pay issues. The unions also criticized Jinks for using a 2019 study indicating comparative pay between Alexandria and other jurisdictions rather than one from last year that showed that gap had further worsened.

The full text of the city’s mid-year pay increase is available online, as is the full text of the local union’s response.

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Freedom House at 1315 Duke Street (photo via City of Alexandria)

The new opening of the Freedom House Museum (1315 Duke Street), a museum dedicated to telling the stories of the victims of slavery trafficked through Alexandria, has been pushed back to a full year after its original planned opening.

The city said the museum is now expected to open to the public in spring 2022.

“Currently closed for repairs, the building has undergone a preliminary restoration and the Office of Alexandria looks forward to opening the building to the public with new exhibits in Spring 2022,” the city said in a press release.

The building, once an East Coast hub for the slave trade, had originally been scheduled to open as a museum this spring.

The Office of Historic Alexandria is planning a public presentation on a historic structure report recently completed for the building by consultants. The report includes in-depth research on the architecture and history of the building. The presentation will be made on Zoom next Thursday, Oct. 28, at 4 p.m. with an opportunity for questions after.

To inform the restoration of the historic building, SmithGroup began the study of the building and the Historic Structure Report in February 2021,” the press release said. “This report builds on prior archaeological excavation conducted in 1987, and recent archival and academic research… The Historic Structure Report includes a documentary study of the building’s history, an assessment of existing building conditions, digital drawings of the site changes over time, and recommendations for the building’s restoration.”

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Morning Notes

Cortado Cafe opens in Alexandria’s West End — “A new coffee shop has opened in the Shoppes of Foxchase shopping center in Alexandria’s West End.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]

Council amends, renames Transportation Master Plan — “City Council approved an amendment to the Alexandria Transportation Master Plan during Saturday’s public hearing that aimed to expand the city’s focus on alternative modes of transit while addressing concerns such as congestion, accessibility and equity.” [Alexandria Times]

Voting starts for Del Ray Halloween contest — “Voting is now open for the People’s Choice Award for Del Ray’s Best Decorated Halloween House” [Visit Del Ray]

The Chamber ALX hosts business awards — “Tonight was epic! Best in Business 2021 did not disappoint with 200+ attendees and 14 restaurants.” [The Chamber ALX]

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Alexandria incumbent Mayor Justin Wilson (D) faced off against challenger Annetta Catchings (R) in a forum hosted by the Seminary Ridge Civic Association (SRCA) earlier this week.

Discussion of crime and policing took up much of the forum, marking one of the few instances where the candidates challenged each other directly. During a discussion of the opioid impact on Alexandria, Catchings put the blame for the issue on drugs on border control and drugs imported from China.

“I’m not going to tap dance around this issue, we know why we’re seeing an influx in this,” Catchings said. “It’s borders that are porous, basically open, those drugs are coming in from that direction and from China. I have the benefit of traveling as a flight attendant. I listened to people talk about their cars being stolen and used for drug runs. It’s become part of our norm, now, something we’ve come to expect. This is a federal problem, it needs to be addressed at the border to reduce the drugs on our streets so it doesn’t overwhelm the municipalities; the departments we have here. It needs to be a partnership at the federal level.”

In one of the few back-and-forths of the evening, Wilson blasted Catchings over her characterization of the epidemic.

“Suggesting border policy has some impact on opioid abuse is not only completely inaccurate and ignorant,” Wilson said, “it’s also incredibly hateful.”

While the opioid crisis is complicated and multi-layered, with 80% of heroin addiction starting with abuse of medically prescribed opioids, one of the deadliest drugs on the market today is fentanyl — 90% of which comes to the United States from China, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune. And while heroin does predominately come to the United States via Mexico, that’s usually through legal ports of entry.

“I’m not going to sink to that level,” Catchings answered. “I’d just like to attack things with basic facts. I’ll let my comment rest as it is… For my opponent to say it’s ignorant, he’s turning a blind eye, just like he does to flooding and crime.”

Closer to home, Catchings accused Wilson of “cutting ties” with Alexandria police and abandoning plans for body cameras.

“When the Mayor signed resolution 2950 — right after George Floyd’s murder, that was one of the things that was promised to our police officers,” Catchings said. “When I read it, what really concerned me was they formed a citizen review board, which has subpoena power, that pretty much handcuffs police officers and keeps them from doing their job effectively. They formed that review board before giving our police officers body-worn cameras. Cameras should have come before the review board.”

The city has struggled for years to get a body camera program running for the police department. Wilson said that should be changing with the city receiving funding from the federal government for a pilot program as part of Congressman Don Beyer’s body-worn camera legislation.

“Cameras are the cheap part, staffing is a considerable expense,” Wilson said, “[but] I’m committed to bringing body-worn cameras to Alexandria.”

Catchings said Alexandria has seen a significant uptick in crime during Wilson’s mayorship, though Wilson pointed out violent crime nationwide has gone up over the last year for myriad reasons, not the least of which was the pandemic. Wilson also said the city should consider non-policing alternatives and investments “upstream” to help prevent crime.

Regarding those upstream investments, Wilson and Catchings also sparred over the guaranteed basic income program being implemented as part of the American Rescue Plan funding.

“In the pandemic, we saw those who live on edge of the poverty level were hit hardest,” Wilson said. “One of our goals was to create additional resiliency in our community. It’s an old idea, something Nixon, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld pioneered as a response to the Great Society. We decided there were some good ideas there. As I talked to folks about this issue I asked them to look at how much we spend to address the impacts of poverty… We’re going to experiment with that, whether these kinds of payments, in lieu of other assistance, are a more impactful way to address poverty. We want to come out of the pandemic in a stronger place than we were before, we need to go out of our comfort zone to do that.”

Catchings said she was concerned that non-Alexandrians could benefit from the program.

“This guaranteed income: it did not serve the people who live in this community and have lived in this community for some considerable time,” she said. “Anyone could come from outside of the city and put their name in a hat. You’re not really addressing the people who live in the community.”

There were a few issues where both candidates agreed: on the need to restore school resource officers to the schools, a need to continue regulating electronic scooter usage, and the need for Dominion Energy to invest more heavily in Alexandria’s infrastructure to prevent the kinds of frequent power outages the city has experienced recently.

Early voting is already underway for the general election, which is on Tuesday, Nov. 2.

Via Facebook

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The Metro is operating at 40% service after the 7000 series railcars were pulled from service to be inspected for the same defect that recently caused a derailment in Arlington.

Metro has said that passengers should expect to wait up to 40 minutes for service on the Blue, Orange, Yellow, Green and Silver lines.

The service cuts come just as the transit system was starting to recover from a pandemic that caused ridership to tank. Even before that, there were concerns that Metro ridership was in a death spiral, and elected leaders like U.S. Rep. Gerald E. Connolly have blasted the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority for ongoing issues that have eroded public trust.

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(Updated 10/22) One of the possible motives being the recent violence in Alexandria City Public Schools being investigated by the Alexandria Police Department seems to be, of all things, disagreements over music lyrics, a police officer said at a meeting of the Gang Prevention Task Force last night (Wednesday).

“The issues at the school… appear to be a dispute over rap music,” said Lt. Jerry Newcomb, commander of the Crimes Against Persons Section. “It’s an ongoing investigation. We’re hoping to find out more… It’s a dispute over lyrics. Some of them think that the lyrics they’ve come up with are proprietary in some way, but we’re still trying to dig into it. That’s the underlying reason that we’re hearing.”

Newcomb said the investigation is hindered by an unwillingness of witnesses to come forward.

“A lot of the problems are we do have witnesses on the scene, but when we go to talk to them, none of them want to talk to us,” Newcomb said. “Our information is extremely limited, but we’re doing the best we can.”

Michael Johnson, from the Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, said that he recently attended a gang prevention conference in Virginia Beach and talked to officials from North Carolina, who said they’re having similar issues.

“These issues from the young guys rapping, that’s not just here, but it’s down to North Carolina and Georgia too,” Johnson said. “It’s coming from YouTube and Facebook. I don’t want anyone to think it’s just Alexandria, it’s happening along the whole East Coast. Guys are traveling from other areas who call themselves rappers and are engaging in this and our kids are doing the same.”

The meeting also included an update on gang activity, including a note from one official that while there are reports of MS-13 graffiti popping up around Old Town, but at least some of that is from a person police know to not actually be affiliated with the gang. Officials also said that some of the newer gangs getting police attention are 47 West Side and South Side Chirilagua, which police say is something of a farm team for MS-13. Police also said South Side Chirilagua are also partially merging with another crew and rebranding.

“These are the types of gangs that always worry us because we don’t have a lot of intel on their activities,” said Jay Lanham, director of the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force.

Also, because it’s a city meeting with elected officials from the School Board and City Council, naturally the School Resource Officer discussion cropped up again. Both School Board member Ramee Gentry and City Council member Mo Seifeldein are on the task force — and both also leaving their elected office before the next meeting in January. During the meeting, Gentry urged the group to nudge the city toward reconsidering its earlier SRO position and urged “other elected officials” in the group to reconsider.

“Some of the discussion around SROs has been tainted,” Gentry said. “I really hope that the next batch of elected officials will listen to this group and carefully consider the best way to move forward in terms of best way to make our students feel accepted and protected in our school buildings.

Seifeldein, one of the School Board members who had advocated for SRO removal, noted that he was the only other elected official in the group.

“When I or Council members make policies, we follow facts and experts and peer-reviewed studies when we make policies,” Seifeldein said, “and I would hope that you do the same when you speak.”

Anyone with more information on any of these crimes is asked to reach out to the police’s non-emergency line: 703-746-4444

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Morning Notes

DASH ridership up 26% — “[DASH] says its Sept ridership was up 26% (215,963 vs 171,589 in Aug) after it launched revamped bus route network, made fares free. Probably got a bump from more reopening/activity.” [Twitter]

Mount Vernon Trail marked for bump removal — “The trail bumps were marked by spray paint with care with hopes that our volunteers would remove them from there. Volunteer to remove trail bumps on 10/23 or 10/30.” [Friends of the Mount Vernon Trail]

Magistrate fired over comments to Times — “Magistrate Elizabeth Fuller, the woman who filed the complaint that ultimately led to the bondsman in the Karla Dominguez homicide case
losing his license, has been fired for comments she made to the Alexandria Times earlier this month.” [Alexandria Times]

Where to drop off unused prescription drugs in Alexandria — “If you have expired or unused prescription drugs taking up space in your medicine cabinet, Alexandria residents will have an opportunity to safely get rid of them later this month.” [Patch]

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Amana Bhuiyan, courtesy photo

(Updated 5:50 p.m.) Amana Bhuiyan wakes up at 4 a.m. at her home in the Huntington neighborhood of Fairfax and immediately starts driving Uber. Around 9 or 10 a.m. she’ll switch to Instacart or DoorDash. Then around 2 or 3 p.m., it’s working at Walgreens until closing until around midnight. Then, another few hours of late-night Uber before returning home to sleep for two or three hours before starting it all again the next day.

It’s an exhausting schedule, but Bhuiyan said it’s what it takes to try t try to raise the money necessary to pay to remove a painful tumor.

“It’s exhausting, but when you have something to fight for, we make it work,” Bhuiyan said, trying to remain upbeat.

Bhuiyan has a tumor just above her hip near the lower part of her spine, which it painfully rubs up against. The tumor is complicated by Bhuiyan’s hemihyperplasia, which means she has extracellular growth on one side of her body. As a last resort, Bhuiyan is running a GoFundMe campaign to try to help cover the medical costs for removing the tumor. The GoFundMe has currently raised $18,640 with a $30,000 goal, which Bhuiyan said would help put a dent in the $150,000 in medical debt from her surgeries and her mother’s paralysis.

“I was born with [hemihyperplasia] which made it so that my tumor was hard to diagnose,” Bhuiyan said.

For two years, Bhuiyan said she jumped from doctor to doctor, from recommendation to recommendation, but each time she said she was told the procedure would be too risky to try and fix. Finally, Bhuiyan found a plastic surgeon willing to work on it. Bhuiyan already had one eight-hour surgery where she said the doctor was able to remove 65% of the tumor. But now, even as Bhuiyan is struggling with the debt from the first surgery, Bhuiyan said the tumor is slowly growing back. Now, even on the nights where she does have a few hours to sleep, Bhuiyan said it’s difficult due to the pain caused by the tumor.

“I already, right now from the first surgery, have maxed out that credit card,” Bhuiyan said. “I had amazing credit. I had a 753 credit score, and now I’m down to 562. I’m not being accepted for any loans because I’m apparently borrowing too much.”

That first surgery ended up costing over $50,000, which Bhuiyan said was all out-of-pocket. Bhuiyan, like many service industry workers that provide the labor pool for major apps, has no health insurance through her jobs. She said she applied for Obamacare last year but never heard back, and makes just enough from all of her jobs that she falls into the gap not protected under Medicaid. But even if she had insurance, Bhuiyan said the tumor isn’t considered a medically necessary surgery and isn’t covered by insurance for plastic surgery.

“I’ve been trying to get it to the point where hopefully I can pay off enough of my debt to try to get a loan to pay off the rest of this surgery because just the surgeon fee is $23,000,” Bhuiyan said. “Because he is a cosmetic surgeon, they don’t take insurance. It’s all out of pocket.”

On top of that work, Bhuiyan is taking classes at George Mason University, and she eventually wants to be a doctor and help people. In the meantime, Bhuiyan hopes at the very least that more people can understand the living situation for those less financially well-off in the area.

“We live in an area where most people have insurance and work for the government, and we don’t really know what the bottom percent of people are going through unless you have someone in your life going through it,” Bhuiyan said. We don’t usually see it. If nothing else, I’m doing this so people can be educated about it.”

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After achieving some funding from earlier grants, the City of Alexandria is going back to that well to try and finance more flood mitigation.

At a meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 26, the City Council is scheduled to review a request for a grant of up to $50 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and up to $10 million from the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR) and Virginia Resources Authority (VRA).

The FEMA grant aims at helping localities fund hazard mitigation projects that reduce the risks for communities facing disasters and natural hazards, which those impacted by Alexandria’s historic flooding would say the city probably qualifies for. The pre-disaster mitigation grant funds planning, design, and construction of emergency prevention projects.

The state grant, the Virginia Community Flood Preparedness Fund Grant, is specifically aimed at providing support for floodwater mitigation projects.

How much, if any, of this funding Alexandria would receive is unknown. Governor Ralph Northam recently approved $115,200 in grant funding for Alexandria — a relatively small amount of the $7.8 million pot allocated to projects nationwide. The funding would be welcome, as city leaders recently expressed a desire to rethink waterfront flood mitigation plans after they came back with $90 million as the cost-conscious option.

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