Alexandria, VA

In the latest Agenda Alexandria conversation, local business and civic leaders came together to discuss the highs and lows of the recently proposed City Manager’s budget.

The budget included a proposed tax rate reduction, but City Council candidate Bill Rosssello challenged the overly sunny narrative about the reduction.

“I look at the budget the way it’s been presented and something that always seems to concern me is when we lead with a narrative around the tax rate,” Rossello said. “The tax rate is only one part of the equation for the actual taxes that people pay… While we’re looking at a proposed 2 cent tax rate decrease, when you do the math, for the average household it comes out to be almost a 6% tax increase in real dollars and that’s what really matters to residents: how much more or how much less am I going to pay?”

Rossello was joined on the panel by Rob Krupicka, former City Council member and Delegate and owner of Elizabeth’s Counter, and Janet Blair Fleetwood, Secretary of the Budget & Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee and the Mayor’s representative on Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee (BFAAC).

The group discussed the current imbalance between the residential and commercial tax bases, which has only gotten worse during the pandemic.

“Back in 2009, we used to get 30.5% of revenue from commercial, said Fleetwood. “It is now 21.3%. We have a good situation here, with Virginia Tech’s Innovation area coming in, Amazon, the Patent office, the National Science Foundation, and Landmark. We should start looking to grow businesses that will come in and bring good jobs and use commercial real estate.”

Fleetwood said there has been talk that post-pandemic, companies may not want to use commercial real estate as they did before, but Fleetwood said she has also heard from companies that they will still need physical footprints for team projects.

“I don’t think commercial footprint is going away,” Fleetwood said.

Krupicka noted that questions about the balance between residential revenue and commercial revenue may fundamentally change post-pandemic.

“The balance between residential revenues and commercial revenue… there are fundamental shifts happening right now that make that an old debate,” Krupicka said. “People are working from home now, and you’re going to see a lot of businesses that don’t go back to commercial office when COVID ends.”

Krupicka said one of the larger concerns is that small business have to compete against larger companies like Amazon and pay taxes those companies don’t.

“Small businesses are competing against Amazon and large internet companies,” Krupicka said. “There is big international competition that pays a lot less taxes than small mom and pop. Small mom and pop has to pay BPOL tax… small businesses like mine are writing checks to government, but doing it in the hole. If you broke even on COVID, you’re paying on gross receipts, not profits.”

Krupicka said Amazon pays retail taxes, which benefits the city, but in general pays less on taxes per transaction than small restaurants or retailers.

“We need to have conversation about if we want small businesses to be at a disadvantage tax wise,” Krupicka said.

On the other side, Rossello said the burden on residential taxpayers has grown considerably and is pushing people out of Alexandria.

“We’ve taxed out so many middle class folks, who can afford to pay decent mortgage or rent, but find it more affordable to leave,” Rossello said. “We’ve seen whole neighborhoods turn over from diverse middle class neighborhoods to gentrified neighborhoods where houses on very small lots are $1.5 million dollars.”

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Every month, Agenda Alexandria tackles a topic of significance to the public. This month, the organization is hitting two of the biggest talking points of 2020 in one fell swoop: how is Alexandria influenced and impacted by institutional racism.

A discussion with Bernadette Onyenaka, co-founder of the O&G Racial Equity Collaborative, and Sara VanderGoot, co-owner of Mind the Mat, is scheduled Monday, Jan. 25, from 6:30-8 p.m. The program will be streamed live.

“In response to the murder of George Floyd, deep inequities in COVID-19 outcomes between people of color and their white counterparts, and the recent presidential election, Americans are engaging in a new conversation about race and structural racism,” the group set on the organization website. “At a local level, Alexandria is not immune from these issues and therefore cannot escape these conversations. Yet sometimes it seems as though we are talking past each other instead of listening and engaging in a dialogue that will move our city forward. Community conversations that bring important stakeholders together to discuss race, equity, and inclusion can help Alexandria’s growth.”

The discussion will focus on methods of discussing diversity, equity and inclusion to create better conversations.

“From an educational perspective, what do important terms such as allyship, racial justice, and microagressions mean?,” the group said. “Join us live online Monday, Jan. from 6:30-8 p.m. for a conversation with local and national leaders on what it will take to advance a new dialogue and new action on race, equity and inclusion.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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As the city government works to iron out details of a proposed civilian review panel for the Alexandria Police Department, some local voices remain divided over how much power should be given to the oversight board.

The latest Agenda: Alexandria discussion, now converted to the On the Agenda podcast, tackled the local issue with Alexandria Gazette-Packet editor Mary Kimm — who was part of a similar initiative in Fairfax County — and David Baker — who retired as Alexandria’s police chief in 2009 after a DUI arrest. The discussion was moderated by journalist and longtime Agenda Alexandria host Michael Lee Pope and Agenda: Alexandria board member Alyia Gaskins.

Both Kimm and Baker expressed support for more civilian oversight, though varied in how they believed that should operate.

“I’m not, and never have been, against civilian oversight,” Baker said. “I think there’s advantages to allowing for more transparency and dialogue, and that builds relationships with the police. I suppose what I am concerned about is how quickly this unfolded.”

Baker said the idea behind the reforms, like body cameras and meaningful laws to prohibit militarization of police, are solid. But regarding the review panel, Baker said he was concerned for potential misuse of subpoena powers. Baker argued that subpoenas could be more intrusive into details, like Facebook messages from civilians, than some realize.

“Subpoena power could have a chilling effect on the community and the police department,” Baker said. “I’m fearful of it at the outset, but I’m not fearful of it as the system develops. It concerns me at the outset for those reasons.”

Kimm agreed that subpoenas should not be a blanket power awarded to the review panel, but said they could could still be part of a broader toolset that would help ensure effectiveness and avoid sidelining of the panel by the police department.

“The systemic racism that underpins the conflict between community and the police is real,” Kimm said. “If you don’t go forward by giving this civilian review panel real teeth, you’re going to erode the confidence civilians have in that. There should be a long discussion about parameters, who can be subpoenas and what should be revealed. It shouldn’t be a blanket subpoena power.”

The more thorny issue was whether or not the review panel should have authority to discipline or fire police officers. Baker argued disciplinary power should lie with the Chief of Police, though he should be required to report on what sort of disciplinary action was taken — if any. Kimm was more undecided on the review panel’s authority to discipline officers, but acknowledged that requiring reporting of discipline would be a positive step forward.

Kimm also noted that it’s likely that any new review panel would face some pushback from the department, as the Ad Hoc Police Practices Review Commission faced in Fairfax when it was established in the wake of the shooting of John Geer.

“If you’ve been successful, no one should be happy with what you’ve developed,” Kimm said. “The police are not going to appreciate civilian review. Whatever limits there are to the power of the civilian panel will make activists upset. But there is a place in-between where people have enough say where it can be successful. It will start off with huge bumps no matter what you do, so buckle your seatbelts.”

City spokesman Craig Fifer said the review panel is scheduled to return to the City Council for discussion in January.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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The controversial vote to slim down Seminary Road may have passed, but the arguments over Complete Streets and the program’s future in Alexandria are just getting started.

At Agenda Alexandria, a group that meets monthly to discuss the top issues affecting Alexandria with a panel of experts, advocates on every side of the issue clashed over whether the “dieting” of Seminary Road was necessary and what the future holds for major Alexandria streets. At the group’s Sept. 23 meeting, a city official argued with local residents not just over the new bike lanes, but over changes to Alexandria’s transportation policies.

“Our paradigm in the past has been exclusively through the windshield,” said Nate Macek, chair of the Planning Commission. “Complete streets is about looking at [roads] for all users.”

Macek argued the Complete Streets program, which replaces some motorized travel lanes with extended sidewalks and bike lanes, right-sizes road infrastructure to cater to all modes of transportation.

“Complete streets are about roads for everyone, whether that’s biking, walking, or driving,” said Josephine Liu, vice-chair of the Alexandria Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee. “That’s also all ages: children, adults, senior citizens and people who may not be able-bodied.”

But for others, the Complete Streets program is a punitive measure against cars that disproportionately favors bicycles.

“It’s about reorienting the streetscape to accommodate every user,” John Townsend, Manager of Public and Government Relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “That’s what it is on paper, but oftentimes it doesn’t work out that way. It gives pride of place to certain modes of transportation and that becomes the inherent problem. There’s nothing wrong with accommodating the streetscape to make them safer or accommodate the maximum number of people, but it comes down to making choices and those choices involve who is in and who is out.”

Townsend argued that in terms of voices on the Complete Streets decision-making, cars are “the low person on the totem pole.” Drivers don’t have the same collective voice in city policy that cyclists do and thus their problems — like gridlock — get left by the wayside, Townsend said.

“There is a fanatic minority who want to get people out of cars, lower the speed limits and reduce the size of roads,” agreed Jack Sullivan, former president of the Seminary Hill Association. “They are being heard in the towers of power.”

While the conversation started with Complete Streets on Seminary Road, critics of the plan drove the discussion to other transportation issues across the city. Townsend argued the slimming down of Seminary Road is just a symptom of a broader problem: that transportation planners don’t account for real-world circumstances.

“The one size fits all approach to planning that comes out of the West Coast, goes to the District of Columbia, and then we try to make it fit in Alexandria,” Townsend said. “These planners stay in college and they lay on the grass and they smoke grass and they don’t know how real people live.”

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