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Body-worn camera (photo via Tony Webster/Flickr)

Alexandria Police will be outfitted with body worn cameras starting this summer, but it won’t be until next year that all officers will be outfitted with the devices.

The $2.2 million program City Manager Jim Parajon presented to Council on Wednesday (March 30) is significantly scaled back cost-wise when compared to a $13 million proposal presented to City Council last year by then-Police Chief Michael Brown.

Parajon says the program , which he has included at Council’s request in his fiscal year 2023 budget, will take a little time to roll out since it requires the hiring of five new attorneys in the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, one attorney in the City Attorney’s office, two APD staffers and an IT professional. He expects the program to be at 60%-70% of its intended strength by the end of FY 2023.

“We are proposing to deploy up to 300+ body worn cameras for the police department over the next year,” Parajon told Council. “I think with that available funding we can deploy at the pace at which we’re able to do this well… I think probably by the end of the fiscal year we would be well deployed, but may not be fully deployed until FY24.”

The program is partially funded by a $600,000 Congressional earmark, and Parajon says the city is looking at state and federal grants to cover an estimated $1.5 million-to-$2.5 million in annual budget costs after the initial rollout, which will begin after Council passes the budget in May and the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

“Once we do this, we will have recurring expenditures, and they’re significant,” Parajon said.

City Council Member Sarah Bagley is concerned about training the officers.

“I just wanted to make sure we have a robust training program,” Bagley said. “How to turn them (the cameras) on, how to turn them off… and that it is an ongoing investment that offciers have an opportunity at the beginning, and then repeatedly as necessary, to get refreshers.”

Parajon said training has been built into the budget, and that the hardest part of the programs aren’t the cameras.

“We’ll do everything as scale,” Parajon said. “And if that means that we deploy 200 cameras, we’re going to do that if we need, and we’ll scale up collectively as we can do it, but I do think the numbers that I’ve proposed are substantial enough, and I’m confident that’s a good way to go at this point and we where we are late in FY ’23 to see if there’s a need to do a little bit more than that.”

Photo via Tony Webster/Flickr

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This year’s budget could include a one-time measure meant to keep the vehicle tax from skyrocketing.

In his monthly newsletter. Mayor Justin Wilson outlined a unique set of circumstances that, if left unchecked, could see Alexandrians’ vehicle personal property tax skyrocket.

“Alexandria’s second-largest General Fund revenue is the vehicle personal property tax,” Wilson said. “As a local tax assessed on vehicle owners annually, based on an assessed value, there is perhaps no tax more hated in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Wilson said in Fiscal Year 2021, the city collected $36.5 million from vehicle owners to provide for a total of $60 million of total general fund revenue.

The tax on vehicle is generally fairly steady, but Wilson said changes in the vehicle market has caused that value to increase dramatically and, with it, the associated vehicle personal property tax.

According to Wilson:

Now, the City Council is grappling with a challenging aberration in this revenue source. Under normal circumstances, the valuations of vehicles do not increase. In 2018 and 2019, only about 1% of Alexandria’s registered vehicles increased in value.

Yet, the pandemic has caused chaos in the used car market place. Last year, many Alexandrians saw increases in the value of their cars. This year, this phenomenon was projected to continue, as the City Manager’s proposed budget assumed an 8.5% increase in revenues.

Wilson said the current estimates are that vehicle values would increase by an average of 26% for 87% of the vehicles in Alexandria.

“This is extraordinary,” Wilson said. “To protect taxpayers, the City Manager has brought to the Council a proposal for one-time relief for vehicle owners.”

The proposal from City Manager Jim Parajon would have the city assess only 77% of the Fair Market Value of vehicles to counter-balance the Covid related upswing in value. The proposal would provide no 2022 tax for vehicles assessed at $5,000 or less, and cars valued higher would still have a smaller amount of relief from the tax.

“This proposal provides all vehicle owners with tax relief, while reserving the greatest relief to vehicles with the lowest valuations,” Wilson said. “It is hopeful that the used car market will get back to normal next year. Council will determine their approach to this proposal later this month.”

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Body-worn camera (photo via Tony Webster/Flickr)

After seven years, body-worn cameras are back in the city budget, but both planned funding and congressional support are still just a drop in the bucket compared to the full cost of the program.

Though the program has been in the budget in previous years, Alexandria communications officer Andrea Blackford said the city hasn’t put any money into the program yet.

“The City of Alexandria has not yet expended funds on the body-worn camera program,” Blackford said. “In Spring 2015, the City began discussing and planning for the program.”

Blackford said FY 2021 was the first year that program costs were incorporated into the budget, but they got axed when the city had to dramatically reshape the budget to deal with the economic impact of Covid.

“Given the high cost of personnel, equipment, and data storage associated with the program, it was first included in the budget process for Fiscal Year (FY) 2021,” Blackford said. “In the initial FY 2021 proposed budget, a police sergeant position was added to evaluate an implementation plan for the program. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the position was removed from the budget.”

Two years later, Blackford said implementation is back in the FY 2023 budget.

City staff have continued to discuss and plan for implementation, resulting in the inclusion of $200,000 in the FY 2023 proposed budget to begin formal implementation of the program.

In addition to the city’s $200,000, Rep. Don Beyer managed to secure $600,000 in federal funding to support the body camera program in Alexandria, but both of those together are still greatly overshadowed by the estimated $13 million total cost of the program.

Photo via Tony Webster/Flickr

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Alexandria’s City Council set the maximum real estate tax rate at a half-cent higher than the current rate, with officials saying that 2022’s hardships make any higher burden on residents untenable.

The City Council voted unanimously for the real estate tax rate to be set at no higher than $1.115 per $100 of assessed value, a slight increase from the current $1.11. While the eventual real estate tax rate could be lower than $1.115, it won’t be higher. Additionally, the city won’t increase the tax rate on personal property or business-tangible property.

Even so, most homeowners in Alexandria will still see taxes go up thanks to higher assessments, and the drop in tax revenue from hotels puts an even greater strain on the residential tax base.

At the current rate, the average residential tax bill is expected to increase by $445 or 6.5% compared to last year’s bill. At the maximum rate of $1.115, that residential tax rate bill would increase an average of $477 or 7%.

City Manager James Parajon’s proposed budget maintains the current tax rate. The additional half-cent provides some flexibility, but not as much as some on the Council would hope for with the city already facing calls for more funding to environmental and affordable housing needs.

“That half-cent is going to go quickly,” said City Council member Canek Aguirre, “so I hope everyone has an idea of where they’re going to find this money from.”

The new maximum rate was unanimously approved. A virtual public hearing on the real estate tax rate is scheduled for Saturday, April 23, and final budget adoption is scheduled for May 4.

“I do agree that we need to give ourselves the flexibility in order to make the decisions over the coming months and take into account any new information we get through our work sessions,” said City Council Member Alyia Gaskins. “At the same time I too and leaning more conservatively. I really do think this is going to be a hard time for our residents. I also think that we are in a unique time that we have ARPA funds and additional revenue coming in, so I think being able to think about ‘are we using that in the most strategic way possible.'”

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Nathaly Zelaya from Tenants at a City Council meeting on March 7, image via City of Alexandriaand Workers United

Alexandria kicked off a discussion of the FY 2023 budget with a public hearing last night (Monday), where climate and housing advocates pushed for the city’s budget to do more to address these issues.

There was little feedback from the City Council in the 45-minute session as the floor was mostly turned over to public speakers.

Kathie Hoekstra, chair of the Environmental Policy Commission, expressed disappointment that the budget didn’t do more to tackle the climate emergency declared in 2019.

“I’m confused because in 2019 you declared a climate emergency and… called for urgent action,” said Hoekstra. “You then committed to taking the following actions: ending greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible, underscoring the need for full community participation, inclusion and support, and being integral to and in the leadership of the mobilization effort. I’m confused because I don’t see that in the current proposed budget.”

Several other speakers at the meeting echoed Hoekstra’s comments, saying the city’s progress on its climate reforms leave something to be desired.

“So I’m left with a couple of questions: why have we not learned to integrate both climate issues and equity issues into all decisions the city makes?” Hoekstra said. “Let me be clear, there are solutions where you don’t have to choose between addressing the climate crisis or affordable housing or any other high priority item. You have incredible city staff members in planning and zoning and the energy apartment, they know the right thing to do they just need your support.”

Hoekstra called for a requirement that city staff integrates climate and equity considerations into every project, plan or proposal. Hoekstra also requested that all new developments asking for bonus density or height be required to certain energy use intensity standards.

The other topics pushed by several speakers were a higher priority on affordable housing support and a return of the old argument about eliminating school resource officers.

An Alexandria City High School student spoke about school resource officers, saying minority students shouldn’t have to see a police officer when entering the school.

Nathaly Zelaya, a community organizer with Tenants and Workers United, asked that the new City Council reverse the previous Council’s decision to reinstate school resource officers and dedicate that funding to mental health programs instead.

Zelaya and other public speakers also asked the City Council to invest more heavily in affordable housing with increases from property tax revenue and an increase in the city’s meals tax.

“We hope our community will be reflected as a priority,” Zelaya said. “We ask the council to prioritize deeply affordable housing for households earning 30% AMI and below in Arlandria and raise the meals tax from 5% to 6% and increasing property tax revenue dedicate to affordable housing from 0.6 cents to a full penny.”

Zelaya also asked that additional American Rescue Plan Act funding be invested into Alexandria Housing Development Corporation projects in Arlandria and the West End.

Budget adoption is scheduled for May 4, with several more work sessions and hearings planned before then.

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Alexandria’s City Hall is a local historic landmark, in addition its role as a civic center, but it’s showing its age.

In the City Manager’s proposed Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) budget, $83.3 million is allocated to renovating City Hall (301 King Street) and $35.3 million is dedicated to leasing or creating swing space for use while the building is overhauled.

The proposed budget says the project will involve some demolition and HVAC work, requiring relocation of city employees during the project. City Hall was rebuilt in 1871 after its predecessor was destroyed in a fire.

“This project was initiated with the purpose of replacing the outdated and past their life cycle heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems (HVAC), life safety systems and perform any necessary structural repairs,” the budget said. “This work requires the demolition of the ceilings and lighting, and disruption of the HVAC and life safety systems in the work areas, therefore requiring the temporary relocation of the employees to a swing space for the duration of the work.”

Over the last two years, a number of city employees have shifted to working from home, and City Hall renovation discussions are taking that into account.

According to the proposed CIP budget: “With the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of city employees working from home increased substantially, thereby also increasing the level of unused or infrequently used office space. When COVID-19 is no longer an issue, if substantial work from home remains, then rethinking of office space use including how City Hall office space should be designed for this new future of work.”

Budget issues over the last few years also pushed the project back from starting in fiscal year 2024 instead of FY 2023, and also an increase in construction costs.

The budget also notes that beyond just HVAC and structural replacement, the renovation is a chance to reimagine how the interior spaces of the very dated building flow:

Since the HVAC, life safety and structural work will have a significant impact in disrupting the workspace and building operations, and requiring the expense of temporary swing spaces, it is reasonable to be performed at the same time with the newly proposed space planning and space reconfiguration. The goal for space planning and reconfiguration will be to resolve the inefficiencies of the building layout, improve circulation and way-finding, improve workflow between various departments, and create a modern, green, healthy, safe, sustainable environment for the employees to work in and for the residents to do business in.

What that doesn’t include, at least at the moment, is some of the long-discussed and controversial potential to add private usage to the building to offset some of that cost.

In an email to ALXnow, city officials said “swing space” — in the context of City Hall renovation — entirely refers to workspaces for staff and that there have been no other discussions around other uses for the building since the project was put on hold during the pandemic.

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Alexandria’s new City Manager James Parajon presented his proposed budget last night to the City Council. While real estate property assessments are still pushing local tax bills up, there’s no tax rate increase proposed in the budget.

The budget is $829.9 million, or a 7% increase from the previous year’s budget. The budget increase is largely funded by the increase in assessments revenue, which comes out to an average $445 increase for the average Alexandria homeowner.

There are still options, however, for increases as alternatives for the City Council. Those rates, Parajon said, would be a 1 penny per $100 of assessed value increase or a 2 penny increase. Budget Director Morgan Routt said the increases would come out to an average $66 increase per penny — or $511 and $577 for the 1 and 2 penny increases. Those one cent increases could fund other initiatives proposed by the City Council.

Parajon is scheduled to present the budget to the public on Thursday, Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. There will be nine work sessions throughout the spring to review the budget. A special public budget hearing is scheduled for Monday, March 7, and a tax rate add/delete hearing on April 23. Final budget adoption is scheduled for May 4.

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New City Manager James Parajon may be trying to make a good first impression with city residents. His first budget — a continuation of one started under former City Manager Mark Jinks — comes with no new tax rate increase. Even so, with real estate assessments on the upswing, local homeowners can still expect to see taxes go up.

In a meeting today, Parajon joined Budget Director Morgan Routt and other city officials to present the fiscal year 2023 budget to the City Council.

The budget is $829.9 million, or a 7% increase from the previous year’s budget.

“This budget does not contain a change in the tax rate,” Parajon told reporters at a meeting earlier today. “The Council asked to provide an alternative A, which is a modest tax rate increase, and an option B, which is a more substantial rate of increase.”

Those rates, Parajon said, would be a 1 penny per $100 of assessed value increase or a 2 penny increase.

The budget office was also able to save more with $1 million in efficiencies and by ARPA funding — of which $21 million is included in the budget. A large portion of that, Parajon said, will be dedicated to affordable housing.

Though the recommended budget does not change the tax rate, Parajon said the budget is funded largely through revenue growth related to real estate assessments.

“The real estate market did not slow down during the pandemic,” Parajon said. “In fact, we’ve seen significant assessment increases.”

City residents can expect a $14 utility fee increase, though, from an estimated $280 to $294.

“That helps us accelerate stormwater management and flooding mitigation,” Parajon said.

Parajon said residents can expect an average $445 per year increase in their taxes, with assessment growth factored in. Routt said the increases would come out to an average $66 increase per penny — or $511 and $577 for the 1 and 2 penny increases.

Most of the budget increase is dedicated to compensation adjustments for staff:

  • Firefighters, medics, fire marshalls: 6% pay scale adjustment
  • Police department and Sheriff’s office: 5% pay scale adjustment
  • General employees: 4% pay scale adjustment

Parajon said that’s in addition to the annual step increases for all in those sectors.

Josh Turner, President of IAFF Local 2141, said it’s a good step but not enough.

“Though we appreciate the new City Manager’s efforts to fix the pay issues found in our department, this proposal does not do enough to stop the bleeding,” Turner said. “When you’re down by 20 in the fourth quarter, it’s not enough to just score when the other team scores. We need to do a full court press to play catchup.”

Turner said in the last two weeks, the city’s lost an additional three firefighter medics, who left for better pay and working fewer hours in neighboring jurisdictions.

“It takes three years for us to recruit, train and get someone street ready as a firefighter medic,” Turner said. “A six percent increase is substantial, but with Fairfax, Arlington and other jurisdictions offering an even greater increase it puts us even farther behind our competitors. If an Alexandria firefighter makes 70k and gets a 6% increase, but a Fairfax firefighter makes 85k and also gets a 6% increase, the pay gap between the Alexandria and Fairfax firefighters is even higher now.”

Alexandria’s police union said on social media the department is facing a similar dearth of new recruits to make up for those leaving.

Meanwhile, Parajon said the recommended budget will fully meet the requests of the ACPS budget, which will include a 10.25% raise for teachers.

The budget also includes a 2.4% increase to the 10-year capital improvement plan (CIP).

“A big portion of that does include funding for initiatives that occurred over this last year, particularly in school construction,” Parajon said. “That includes full funding of the ACPS CIP, which includes the new high school facility at Minnie Howard and the purchase and renovation of an office building.”

The CIP includes $288 million to expand floodwater mitigation efforts, including projects in the Glebe Road area and spot improvements throughout the city. The CIP also includes $200 million to renovate city facilities.

After tonight’s meeting, Parajon is scheduled to present the budget to the public on Thursday, Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. There will be nine work sessions throughout the spring to review the budget. A special public budget hearing is scheduled for Monday, March 7, and a tax rate add/delete hearing on April 23. Final budget adoption is scheduled for May 4.

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The Alexandria School Board unanimously adopted Superintendent Gregory Hutchings’ $346 million fiscal year 2022 Combined Funds Budget last Thursday night.

The proposal, which was approved without discussion, is a nearly 4% increase ($9.3 million) over last year’s request from the City, and asks for approximately $248.7 million from the city to give employees a 2.6% salary step increase and a 2.5% market rate adjustment. The school system is banking on the hope that the city will endorse former Governor Ralph Northam’s proposal to raise teacher pay by 10.25% across the state.

“To ensure we can continue to recruit and retain high quality staff, we must offer compensation that is highly competitive with our surrounding school divisions,” Hutchings wrote in the budget proposal.

The ACPS budget is comprised of the $316.2 million ACPS operating fund, $17.6 million from the grants and special projects fund and a $12 million school nutrition fund.

On Tuesday (Feb. 15), City Manager Jim Parajon will unveil his fiscal year 2023 budget proposal. Barring an unforeseen addition to the budget by a member of Council related to the school system, Parajon’s proposal will generally determine the city’s position toward funding the school system’s requests. Council will then spend the next several months in budget deliberations before finally approving the budget in May.

The School Board mostly went along with Hutchings’ proposal, and only made slight changes in last week’s add/delete session by earmarking funds to conduct a comprehensive salary scale study for all ACPS employees, as well as hiring a part-time college and career position at Alexandria City High School. The adjustments did not change the proposed budget amount.

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Just hours before a Joint City Council/School Board Subcommittee meeting, new Alexandria City Manager Jim Parajon spoke with Alexandria City Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr.

Parajon, who started work earlier this month, said it was a great conversation and that he looked forward to working collaboratively with Hutchings, who wants a 2.6% salary step increase and a 2.5% market rate adjustment for all eligible ACPS employees in the upcoming fiscal year 2023 budget.

“I got a chance to talk to the superintendent this afternoon. Dr. Hutchins, we had a great conversation,” Parajon said. “I’m so excited about the opportunity to work collaboratively with him and looking forward to a great partnership with the school district.”

“I have received the budget request from the school district, both operating and capital,” Parajon told the subcommittee, which is comprised of Mayor Justin Wilson, Councilman John Taylor Chapman, School Board Chair Meagan Alderton and Vice Chair Jacinta Greene. “I appreciate the efforts, because put together it’s comprehensive and I’m sure I’ll have a few questions as we go forward, but I know staff has been interacting with school district staff quite a bit and (the City will) be ready to present a recommended budget to you in February.”

Hutchings’ $346 million fiscal year 2022 Combined Funds Budget asks for approximately $248.7 million from the city — a $9.3 million increase in the city’s annual appropriation over last year. The City Council ultimately provides ACPS with 80% of its operating fund, and the school system is banking on the hope that the city will endorse former Governor Ralph Northam’s proposal to raise teacher pay by 10.25% across the state.

The school system is not alone in wanting raises for staff, as the Alexandria Fire Department and Police Department are also struggling with retention. Parajon will present his proposed budget on February 15, and City Council will conduct work sessions and other public meetings in the lead up to the budget passage in early May.

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