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After being overwhelmed by behavioral health-related calls for service, the Alexandria Co Response Team (ACORP) pilot program is being expanded.

The pilot program soft-launched last fall, with the ACORP team (a licensed behavioral health clinician and specially trained officer) responding to 145 (16%) of behavioral health-related calls for service between October 2021 and February 2022, according to a report that goes before City Council on Tuesday (May 10).

The collaboration between the Alexandria Police Department and the city’s Department of Community and Human Services has been deemed a success by Council, which approved two more ACORP teams in the city’s fiscal year 2023 budget.

In 14 incidents where an arrest could have been made, the ACORP team diverted 10 of them (71%) from arrests, according to the report.

However, the ACORP team has been unable to respond to approximately 85% of the 958 total behavioral-health related calls because they were off duty (63% of calls) or busy with another call (21% of calls).

The team has also been hampered by a 40-hour-per-week schedule, and after a few modifications, now work between Monday and Thursday, from noon to 10 p.m., “to better address the high number of calls consistently coming in on Mondays,” according to the report.

The overwhelming majority of behavioral health-related calls for service were in the 22304 Zip code (317 calls, or 33%) and in 22314 (253 calls, or 26%).

Of the 145 behavioral health calls for service ACORP responded to between October 2021 and February 2022:

  • 52% were for unusual behavior or threats/ harm to self
  • 45% of the calls were resolved on-scene (45%)
  • 13% of calls that ACORP responded to resulted in involuntary transport to the hospital

These two incidents were mentioned in the report:

ACORP was dispatched to a scene involving a person engaging in suicidal behavior, with a knife in his hand, who had been cutting himself. Several units jointly responded to the call since there was a weapon involved, so there was a heavy police presence on the scene. As the ACORP team was trying to engage with the individual, they were surrounded by police officers (due to the imminent danger). The individual shared that he did not trust the police due to previous negative encounters and threatened to harm anyone coming close to him physically. He did say that he would talk to the ACORP co-responder (Megan) alone, but given that he was still a threat, the co-responding officer stayed in the room, and the other law enforcement officers were asked to slowly, one-by-one, step outside briefly. At that time, the ACORP team was successfully able to de-escalate this individual, get him to hand over the weapon, and voluntarily go with them to the hospital for further assessment and treatment. The individual got the help that he needed. This situation also increased trust between law enforcement and the co-response team and between the individual and law enforcement.

The ACORP team responded to a scene involving an individual in distress following a domestic dispute in the early Fall of 2021. The ACORP team successfully de-escalated this individual on-scene and referred them for additional services. A few months later, after not hearing from this man, ACORP responded to a call for service involving a different person who was heavily intoxicated and experiencing suicidal ideation. They arrived on scene, assessed the situation, and stepped into the hallway to discuss a strategy. While in the hallway, the man ACORP served months prior appeared and shared how grateful he was to the ACORP team for helping him get connected with services and as a result, leave a tumultuous relationship and achieve a better quality of life. This man heard the individual in distress behind the door, whom he knew. He was able to speak with his neighbor in distress and share how much he himself had been helped by the ACORP team. This first-hand experience helped the distressed man trust the ACORP team, agree to speak with them, and ultimately get connected to the services he needed.

 

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Abandoned railway at GenOn power plant (staff photo by Vernon Miles)

Alexandria’s annual budget process wrapped up this week with a $839.2 million fiscal year 2023 budget approval and special tax relief for car owners.

Meanwhile, an uptick in opioid overdoses among children has Alexandria City Public Schools considering adding Narcan to schools and city officials issuing warnings about counterfeit Percocet.

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(Updated at 1:45 p.m.) The Alexandria City Council unanimously adopted City Manager Jim Parajon’s $839.2 million fiscal year 2023 budget on Wednesday night (May 4), and despite giving all city employees raises, Mayor Justin Wilson says inflation will likely mean more raises in future budgets.

“We’re staring into a significant inflationary environment that pinches our employees very hard, just like it pinches everyone hard,” Wilson said. “We’re going to have to continue to have this conversation every year about how we make sure we invest in the level of compensation and benefits required to not only attract but retain the best and the brightest in the city.”

The budget is an 8.9% increase from the FY 2022 budget, and includes a 7%  raise for firefighters, medics and fire marshals; a 6% raise for Police Department and Sheriff’s Office staff and a 4.5% raise for general city employees. That’s in addition to annual merit increases for city staff.

City residents can expect to pay an additional $445, or 6.5%, in real estate taxes, although Parajon’s budget maintains the current tax rate at $1.11 per $100 of assessed value. There are a number of other new fees, such as a $294 stormwater utility fee, which is a $14 increase over last year’s doubling of the fee from $140 to $280 to shore up flooding issues.

Council also approved Wilson’s proposal to increase annual residential and commercial refuse collection fees to $500 citywide (from $411 for commercial and $484.22 for residential collection). The $315,000 from the collected fees will fund a curbside food waste collection pilot.

This was the first budget for Parajon, who started work in January.

“This is a team effort and the fact we were able to put together what I think is a budget that truly is going to help a lot of people in the city,” Parajon said.

Councilman Kirk McPike said that he was proud to raise employee compensation, and that there is more work to do. McPike and his fellow new Council members Sarah Bagley and Alyia Gaskins were supportive of a 10% raise for AFD staff in February, as the department has struggled with recruitment, retention and compensation for years.

“I think that as a council we’re committed to doing more to help our firefighters and our police have the support that they need to give us the protection that the people of Alexandria deserve,” McPike said.

The budget also fully meet the requests of the Alexandria City Public Schools budget, which includes a 10.25% raise for teachers.

Council also unanimously approved the 10-year $2.73 billion Capital Improvement Program, which includes $497.8 million in investments for a new high school, renovations at 1705 N. Beauregard Street and two elementary school expansions.

The budget moves nearly $800,000 in Alexandria Police Department funding for School Resource Officers at Alexandria City Public Schools to a reserve account to fund six full time employees.

The budget includes:

  • $1.85 million for police body worn cameras
  • Expansion to Dash line 30
  • $95,000 to hire a social equity officer
  •  An additional Alexandria Co-Response team (ACORP), costing $277,000
  • $200,000 in reserve funding to support Metro Stage construction
  • Purchase of 4850 Mark Center Drive — the future home of the Department of Community and Human Services, the Alexandria Health Department and a West End service center

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The trash situation is changing in Alexandria, as City leaders are ironing out a new curbside food waste collection pilot.

Mayor Justin Wilson’s proposal for the one-year pilot would see annual residential and commercial refuse collection fees increase from $484 to $500 citywide, or $1.33 a month.

“We’ll see how the pilot goes,” Wilson told ALXnow. “Falls Church uses a vendor and they actually have the vendor charge residents directly who want the collection. It may end up we go with that model instead of providing universal collection. We’ll see how much support there is for this.”

A $315,000 allocation would fund the new curbside food waste collection pilot program, as well as expand the city’s food waste drop-off composting program in spots designated by City Manager Jim Parajon.

If approved by Council as an addition in Parajon’s fiscal year 2023 budget, 600 residents over six months (potentially up to 2,500 over the full year) would be delivered a 5-gallon bucket to fill up with food waste. The trash would be picked up for composting on a designated collection day.

The City anticipates that the pilot program could begin no later than late fall.

Alexandria communications officer Andrea Blackford said that evaluating the feasibility of curbside organics supports the City’s WasteSmart Strategic Plan and Environmental Action Plan.

“Food waste such as fruit and vegetable scraps; expired bread, pasta, rice, grains and cereal; and egg shells and coffee grounds would be collected and processed into nutrient-rich compost, a natural soil amendment,” Blackford said. “This pilot aims to evaluate expansion of composting options in the City.”

City residents currently get weekly yard waste collections that are composted or turned into mulch, in addition to four free food waste composting stations at farmers’ markets on weekends.

If approved, residents should expect to be be notified of the pilot on the City website, social media and eNews.

“Sign up for the pilot program will be first-come, first-served, based on expressions of interest collected through a simple electronic survey,” Blackford said. “In this pilot, we will consider prioritization for customers who may have transportation/access and accessibility/disability barriers to participating in the existing food waste drop-off program at farmers’ markets.”

Wilson said the program reduces trash volume, and that City is exploring new locations for food waste collection spots in Old Town North and the West End.

“Dong so is not only great for the environment, it reduces our trash volume by diverting food waste from our regular trash collection,” he said.

The budget will be adopted on May 4.

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Captain Mike Faber feels like he’s always working, and that the City of Alexandria owns he and his family.

Faber says he works an average of 80 hours a week, much of it forced overtime, and on Saturday (April 23) he was backed at City Hall by nearly a dozen Alexandria Fire Department staffers and supporters pleading for increased wages and upgraded equipment.

“In a sense, the City of Alexandria doesn’t just employ me, it owns me and my family, because my ability to participate in my home life is controlled by my employer,” Faber told City Council. “Even with mandatory overtime becoming a daily occurrence, we are still putting trucks, engines and ambulances out of service. As of today, we’ve had something out of service every day since August 12, sometimes having up to four or five units downgraded or pulled from service. That’s 254 straight days of providing suboptimal, and unnecessarily hazardous service to the members of our community.”

Josh Turner, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2141, said that there is a culture of “employees being stepped on, mistreated, and lied to.”

It’s a culture of doing more work, while being paid less,” Turner said. “It’s a culture of being undercut by management and city officials who care more about their perception than they do their employees.”

Turner said the proposed 6% salary increase in City Manager Jim Parajon’s new budget isn’t enough to slow an attrition rate that’s outpacing the number of graduates going through the Fire Department training academy. He also called out Council Members Alyia Gaskins, Kirk McPike and Sarah Bagley for supporting an Alexandria Democratic Committee resolution asking for a 10% pay increase for AFD staff in February.

That 10% increase would only cost $3.4 million,” Turner asked. “What happened to this promise and support?”

Mayor Justin Wilson said that there are no quick fixes to the department’s woes.

“It requires that we not only attract and train new staff, but also retain folks at higher rates than we have been,” Wilson told ALXnow. “We have added significant headcount in recent years (there is no major City Department that has grown as much as AFD), but it takes a while to staff up that quickly, given the training required. That being said, I would like us to continue to explore ways for us to recruit staff from around the region that are already trained and can be placed on the street more quickly than new recruits. That will enable us to reduce the overtime challenges that are negatively impacting our staff.”

AFD was challenged throughout the pandemic by short-staffing and even suspended annual leave in December when COVID-levels were on the rise. Also in December, the union decried the understaffing within the Department by stating that it put people and buildings at risk during a fire at Crystal City’s restaurant row on 23rd Street.

There are now 274 sworn employees and 23 civilian employees within AFD, and the the department needs 347 to be fully staffed. The numbers include 23 recent Recruit School graduates announced on April 15, and the new firefighters and EMTs spent seven months in training.

The department has also experienced an 8.6% attrition rate between April 25, 2021, and April 25, 2022, and the department averages nearly 28 holdover hours a day, and 9.26 people per day work 24 hours of overtime, according to AFD.

The Alexandria Fire Department is among the lowest paid in the region, with full-time firefighter salaries starting at $49,294. The department recently elected its first officers for collective bargaining, which will result in a labor agreement hammered out with the city by this fall.

Firefighter paramedic Alexander Lee is assigned to the training division, and says he has seen a 25% dropout rate in the staff he’s trained over the last six years.

“As a firefighter paramedic, I’ve been on calls where I’ve tried, in vain, to resuscitate a deceased infant, and then two hours later be told that I have to stay at work for another 24 hour shift due to short-staffing,” Lee said. “Members see other jurisdictions where their firefighters work less hours, make more money, spend more time with family and experience less burnout, and ask, ‘Why should I stay here?'” 

AFD Captain Sean Europe says he has worked 80 hours a week for nine months straight.

“One of the major things that has been getting me through this time is cherishing the moments that I am able to spend with my daughter who will be two in June,” Europe said. “As some of you with children may know, she’s reaching an age where she’s going to start remembering special occasions like her first Easter egg hunt.”

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More police officers, body worn cameras for cops and an additional raise for city employees are among the additions the Alexandria City Council hopes to adopt in their upcoming budget.

On Saturday (April 23), Council will hold a public hearing on their proposed additions and deletions to City Manger Jim Parajon’s fiscal year 2023 budget. The items under discussion will also be hammered out in a Council work session on (Tuesday) April 26 at 6 p.m. in City Council Chambers.

Mayor wants more cops

Mayor Justin Wilson is proposing to add six full-time employees to the Field Operations Bureau of the Alexandria Police Department. The move would cost $800,000, with funds being taken from the city’s School Resource Office contingent reserve.

Wilson says the move takes the SRO decision out of the budget process, and lets APD determine how those funds are allocated. Patrol operations lies within the Field Operations Bureau, and includes SROs.

“This means that the money that the manager set aside for SRO’s is being allocated to the police department for their staffing,” Wilson told ALXnow. “We will still figure out where the staffing will be, but this will focus it as a policy question, not a staffing/budget question.”

The Alexandria City Council defunded SROs last year, and then brought them back at the behest of the school system.

Speed cameras

The scene of a crash outside Jefferson Houston Elementary School, March 29, 2022. (staff photo by James Cullum)

Wilson also wants five photo speed cameras at school crossing zones, which would cost $490,000. The locations of the cameras would be determined by the Department of Transportation & Environmental Services.

The cameras would be paid for by revenues from tickets.

Body worn cameras

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

Speaking of cameras, Council Member Alyia Gaskins is proposing to increase body worn camera funding for APD officers by $1.4 million, which is in addition to the $600,000 federal earmark and $200,000 currently budgeted for the program.

The proposal would move $800,000 in unspent American Rescue Plan Act funds. The officers will be outfitted with body worn cameras starting this summer.

Additional raises for city employees

Alexandria first responders are already getting raises in Parajon’s budget, but City Councilman Kirk McPike thinks they need an additional 0.5% pay scale adjustment.

The $1.3 million in funding would be paid through city revenues, and is in addition to the proposed 6% raise for Alexandria Fire Department staff, a 5% raise for Police and Sheriff’s Office staff and the 4% raise for general employees.

The proposed add/deletes also include:

  • Increasing dedicated city revenue for affordable housing by a penny, bringing the total to $4.6 million in this year’s budget (Sponsored by Gaskins)
  • An additional Alexandria Co-Response team (ACORP), costing $277,000 (Sponsored by Vice Mayor Amy Jackson)
  • Hiring civil engineer for Alexandria’s Complete Streets Vision Zero projects, costing $150,000 a year (Sponsored by Council Member Sarah Bagley)
  • Increase the General Fund Reserve by $2 million for climate change initiatives ((Sponsored by Bagley)
  • Adding $500,000 to early childhood services in an undesignated contingency fund (Sponsored by Wilson)
  • Adding service lines to DASH, costing $3 million+ (Sponsored by McPike and Councilman Canek Aguirre)
  • A $10,000 bonus to all Alexandria Fire Department staff to get Advanced Life Support certification (Sponsored by Councilman John Taylor Chapman)
  • Adding a race and social equity position, costing $95,000 (Sponsored by Aguirre)
  • $200,000 in reserve funding to support Metro Stage construction (Sponsored by Jackson)

The budget will be adopted on May 4.

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It’s about to get a little more expensive to live in Alexandria. The City Council on Saturday (April 23) will set the real estate tax rate and likely increase the stormwater utility fee for residents by 5%.

In real terms, that means residents could expect to pay between $445 and $477 per year more in real estate taxes, as City Manager Jim Parajon’s proposed budget maintains the current tax rate at $1.11 per $100 of assessed value.

The $1.11 rate, approved by Council for fiscal year 2022, was a 2 cent reduction from the real estate tax rate of $1.13 in FY 2021.

In February, City Council approved a real estate tax ceiling of $1.115, a .45% increase, which gives them wiggle room in the budget process. Council could raise the tax to that rate to fund a project or initiative, but the increase is not accounted for in Parajon’s budget.

The public hearing is at 9:30 a.m. at City Hall.

Additionally, Parajon is proposing an increase to the stormwater utility fee, which would mean residents would pay $294, a $14 increase. Last year, the fee was boosted 100%, from $140 to $280, as Alexandria continues to remediate serious flooding issues.

The budget will be adopted on May 4.

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Budget season is Christmas for local policy wonks with every week providing insight into where the city is and isn’t investing in its future. But municipal budgets can also be a famously boring topic.

The annual budget can include some insight into the city’s priorities. This year, for instance, the budget finally includes funding for a police body camera program after being proposed as far back as 2015.

Some of the budget changes could also have a profound impact on the bill for local taxpayers. Mayor Justin Wilson recently proposed a one-time measure that would alleviate a potentially dramatic tax increase for local car owners, and a recent discussion of larger changes to the real estate tax rate could see more of the tax burden shifted to commercial properties.

Are you someone who closely follows the ins and outs of the budget process, or someone who checks in every once in a while but isn’t interested beyond that?

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While such a major change is unlikely to occur this year, Alexandria’s City Council recently considered ideas proposed by the Budget and Fiscal Affairs Advisory Committee (BFAAC) that could dramatically shape budgets in the future.

Amy Friedlander, vice chair of BFAAC, presented budget-related recommendations to the City Council at a work session yesterday (Wednesday), including two that raised eyebrows on the Council.

“We encourage City Council to keep the residential tax rate at current levels and that we recommend the council considers establishing a goal for the differentiation between the residential and commercial tax bases,” Friedlander said, “as well as considering perhaps decoupling residential and commercial rates. I know that’s a big policy change, but it’s something to think about as you proceed through the year.”

The city’s real estate tax rate — recommended in the City Manager’s budget to remain at the current $1.11 per $100 of assessed value — is the same for both residential and commercial properties. However, as Alexandria residential real estate owners could attest, the tax rate remaining the same is still an increase for local property owners as assessed values continue to increase substantially.

“The burden on the residential tax base is increasing due to increased assessments,” Friedlander said. “If there were possibilities to alleviate that pressure, decoupling the two of them might be one of them.”

Reception on the City Council was mixed, with some concerns that breaking the tax rate into two parts could put undue pressure on commercial properties or negatively impact renters, who get grouped into the commercial tax base.

“Obviously giving us more flexible tools is great,” McPike said. “My concern would be: if we’re raising commercial tax rates, that includes a lot of rental properties. While renters don’t pay property taxes directly, those get rolled into the rents they pay, so I wonder if there might be some sort of regressive impacts to that approach. That would be a concern of mine, but I think in general flexibility could be something that outweighs that.”

Mayor Justin Wilson called the suggestion “tricky.”

“There are winners and losers on any of these things,” Wilson said. “If the state gave us more flexibility there would be more options available, but practically speaking our choice is: do we fund our match for NVTA using the commercial setaside or use it funding a real estate tax that everyone pays. Today we do it with everyone paying it, we could do it with commercial paying it only, but that obviously has implications. When we talked about this last time we were concerned about small businesses with triple net leases where this goes directly to their bottom line.”

The other proposal that stirred discussion on the City Council was going back to a five-year Capital Improvement Program (CIP) to avoid situations where eventual costs far outpace initial estimates in the CIP.

Friedlander said BFAAC recommended potentially reevaluating the total timeframe of the CIP to include projects ready for implementation only with other projects too far in the future to properly plan out — what comprises the majority of the later side of the CIP — put into a separate category. The city had five-year CIPs prior to 2009, Friedlander said, but switched to 10-year CIPs for the 2009 budget.

“That’s also a big thing,” Friedlander admitted. “Consider: is there a different way of planning, of labeling projects, of describing them that would better illustrate to the community. ‘This is something that’s going to happen right now and is going to be done shortly’ versus ‘this is something that’s going to be more long term.'”

Wilson said it’s a conversation that’s come up recently on the City Council in relation to projects requiring large investments with unclear costs.

“We’ve had this conversation of late, particularly when it comes to schools,” Wilson said. “[These are] projects put on the CIP years out and as it gets closer the numbers are violently off and we have to have reconciliation or worse where we’re throwing projects two years out and then saying ‘quick, we have to do this.’ It doesn’t work as well as perhaps it should.”

Wilson also said the predictability of costs and planning can vary depending on the department. Road paving, for instance, is precise for around three years but vague beyond that, while school projects are usually put on the CIP far ahead of the actual costs.

“Part of why we went to a 10 year CIP is to use it as such,” Wilson said, “where we could say ‘you need a new elementary school, and we have it in year 9.’ It’s coming, but we still have to get there.'”

Councilmember Sarah Bagley said that either way, the city should do more to communicate the differences between financial plans and construction plans.

A tax rate add/delete hearing is scheduled for April 23 with final budget adoption is scheduled for May 4.

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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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