Newsletter

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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Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne in the alley behind his house after flooding in Del Ray. (Courtesy photo)

(Updated 8:30 p.m.) As part of an upcoming overview of the budget, Alexandria’s City Council will be considering an increase in the stormwater utility fee (item 16).

The fee is scheduled to increase from $280 to $294 for the stormwater utility fee bill due Nov. 15 this year.

The increase is scheduled for second reading and a public hearing at the meeting on Saturday, April 23, with the final passage of the ordinance scheduled for Wednesday, May 4.

The increase is more modest than last year’s increase, which doubled the stormwater utility fee from $140 to $280 by November. The aim of last year’s fee increase was to help accelerate the timetable for needed stormwater projects.

The City Council is also scheduled to consider budget add/delete proposals as well as the establishment of the real and personal property tax rates, also scheduled for final approval in May.

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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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Rendering of the unit block of King Street with street closure, image via City of Alexandria

Updated 7:45 p.m. — Christopher Ziemann, division chief for Department of Transportation & Environmental Services, said in an email:

What City Council approved last night was not the pedestrian zone directly. This requires an ordinance change, which requires a public hearing. That Council approved last night was the first reading of the item and to set it for public hearing on April 23. On the 23rd, there will be a public hearing on the topic, which will most likely involve a presentation, discussion, questions and public comments.

Alexandria’s City Council approved first reading of the temporary closure of the unit block of King Street and a block of the Strand to vehicle traffic, with a full hearing planned later this month.

The full public hearing is scheduled for Saturday, April 23.

If approved, the closure is set to last for three months, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, with staff checking in on local businesses and monitoring pedestrian traffic over that time to gauge the impact. The pilot follows a similar path to the closure of the 100 block of King Street, which was made permanent last year.

The new zone will bring outdoor dining to the sidewalk and parking areas if the restaurants get permits. Deliveries and loading will be shifted to Union Street. Movable barriers and movable bicycle racks will also be set up on the block.

The block had been the endpoint for the King Street trolley, though that was changed to the block outside City Hall after the closure of the 100 block.

In one of our recent unscientific polls, 40% of respondents they wanted the pedestrian zone to be expanded for a few more blocks, but not for the whole of King Street to be turned into a pedestrian zone. Around 33% said they wanted everything up to the King Street Metro station to be converted into a pedestrian zone.

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Tap water in Alexandria. (staff photo by James Cullum)

Alexandria will argue against a rate hike by Virginia American Water, even though the increase will go into effect on May 1.

The average water bill in Alexandria will go up about $94 per year, which the utility says covers infrastructure upgrades cross Virginia, including the replacement of a 3,800-foot-long water main in Alexandria that was installed in the 1950s.

Virginia American Water filed for the $14.3 million in rate increases with the State Corporation Commission (SCC) in November.

“The company is requesting this increase based on $137.6 million in infrastructure investments from May 2020 through April 2023,” Barry Suits, Virginia American Water president, said in a statement. “Through these investments we continue to upgrade our infrastructure and deliver high-quality water and wastewater service and fire protection to approximately 339,000 people in Alexandria, Dale City, Hopewell and the Northern Neck.”

Bill Eger, the city’s energy manager, said that the proposed rates in Alexandria are increasing faster than what the city wants or expects, and that before the SCC hearing the city will send out a press release detailing how residents and business owners can publicly comment.

“At that point in time the public can provide comments in order to state their case about why this rate case is important to them, including whether or not the costs that are being suggested are too much too little,” Eger told Council. “I suspect most would say it’s probably too much.”

Virginia American Water last increased rates in 2018, after proposing and implementing a $6.6 million increase in rates statewide. That rate was later reduced to just a $1.2 million increase after being litigated with the SCC, and residents and businesses were issued refunds.

Mayor Justin Wilson told Eger that he appreciates the effort to lower rates.

“We appreciate all of your work, understanding this and then fighting for our ratepayers,” Wilson told Eger. “It’s very important.”

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Zeina Azzam is Alexandria’s next Poet Laureate. (Via Zoom)

Palestinian American Zina Azzam has been chosen as Alexandria’s poet laureate, and will take over the post filled three years ago by KaNikki Jakarta, who was honored with a proclamation on Tuesday night (April 5).

“I’m really delighted to be here and to I’m really honored to have this position,” Azzam told the Alexandria City Council. “I’ve got big shoes to fill and I’m really looking forward to it.”

Azzam is a volunteer with Grassroots Alexandria and is the author of poetry collection “Bayna Bayna, In-Between“. She has a master’s degree in Arabic literature from Georgetown University and her professional credits include stints as the publications editor at the Arab Center Washington D.C., senior program manager for

Mayor Justin Wilson presented outgoing Poet Laureate KaNikki Jakarta with a proclamation honoring her for her work over her three-year term, which concludes at the end of April.

“You have been a wonderful poet laureate,” Wilson told Jakarta. “It seems like just yesterday that we were appointing you. I don’t know what the heck happened here in time, but you have been a wonderful ambassador for our city and just set the perfect tone for so many different events on so many different occasions.”

Jakarta wrote 25 poems in those three years, spoke at numerous annual events and conducted poetry workshops.

“Thank you very much for appointing me to be poet laureate,” Jakarta said. “It’s been very interested in these Covid times, being able to pivot. It has been an honor to honor other people before me and to bring history and words to that.”

Azzam was chosen by a literary task force made up of representatives from the Alexandria Library, a local book store, the Alexandria Transit Company, and the Office of Historic Alexandria. If unable to fulfill her three year term, the task force recommended that poet Elias Yabarow act as an alternate.

The poet laureate program began in 1979, and there have been seven poets to hold the position:

  • KaNikki Jakarta, 2019-2022
  • Wendi R. Kaplan, 2016-2019
  • Ryan Wojtanowski, 2016
  • Tori Lane Kovarik, 2013-2016
  • Amy Young, 2010-2013
  • Mary McElveen. 2007-2010
  • Jean Elliot, 1979-1999

Photos via Zoom

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Spring gets into full swing in Alexandria this month, and there are dozens of events around the city to get you out of the house.

Visit Alexandria has compiled a list of events this month around town, including Easter egg hunts, book signings, a film screening and musical performances.

April events in Alexandria:

  • Outdoor cello concert: Listen to cellist Amit Peled at The Rectory in Old Town on April 7 (Thursday), from 5 to 6 p.m. and 6:30 to 7 p.m. Tickets cost $45 apiece for adults and $25 for children
  • Book signing at Alexandria Visitor Center: Meet John Adam Wasowicz, the Author of the Old Town Mysteries, Daingerfield Island, Jones Point, Slaters Land and Roaches Run. Two book signings will be held on April9 and 10 (Saturday and Sunday) from 10:00 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Easter Egg Hunt with the Old Town Business Association: On April 9 (Saturday) from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
  • Historic event at Carlyle House: On April 9 (Saturday), learn from costumed interpreters about how Major General Edward Braddock, Commander-in-Chief of His Majesty’s Forces in North America, landed in Alexandria in 1775. Tickets are free, and the event is from 12 to 4 p.m.
  • Cherry Blossom Jubilee: On Sunday (April 10), enjoy live performance by taiko drum group Nen Daiko on the waterfront side of the Art Center, followed by an Art Center-wide exhibition of cherry blossom-inspired works by resident artists and galleries
  • Outdoor vocal recital: On Thursday (April 14), Mexican soprano Judy Yannini makes her Secret Garden debut in a program of selections from vibrant zarzuelas to beloved operas, from 5 to 6 p.m. and 6:30 to 7 p.m. Tickets cost $45 apiece for adults and $25 for children
  • Easter Egg Hunt at Lee-Fendall House: On April 16 and 17 (Saturday and Sunday), there will be Easter egg hunts at the historic property, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tickets cost $15 for children ages 2 to 12, $5 for accompanying adults
  • Outdoor bluegrass concert: On April 21 (Thursday), listen to father-son team Ken & Brad Kolodner, from 5 to 6 p.m. and 6:30 to 7 p.m. Tickets cost $45 apiece for adults and $25 for children
  • Advance screening of ‘TRASHY: a zero waste film’: The feature documentary follows its director as she tries not to throw anything away over the course of a year. The free screening at the Torpedo Factory Art Center starts at 6 p.m.
  • 89th Annual Old Town Alexandria Homes & Garden Tour: The long cherished event will be held on April 23 (Saturday), from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets cost $55 apiece if bought online and $65 at the Alexandria Visitor Center to tour the Carlyle House, Lee-Fendall House, River Farm, Gunston Hall, Mount Vernon and Green Spring Gardens
  • Alexandria Symphony Orchestra performance: The ASO will perform the music of Barber and Brahms at its April 23 (Saturday) concert. The event is from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. and costs $20-$85 for adults, $5 for children and $15 for students
  • Rocklands BBQ meat and greet party: The April 23 (Saturday) event features School of Rock performances and local vendors
  • Soul Food Saturday: On April 23 (Saturday), explore the contributions of African American innovation and tradition to American cuisine with a unique walking tour around Old Town. The event is from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. and tickets cost $95 apiece
  • Earth Day tree planting: Join the Alexandria City Council on April 23 (Saturday) for a tree planting on Earth Day in Old Town, from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m.
  • History discussion on African American housing crisis in Alexandria: On April 28 (Thursday), Dr. Krystyn Moon will examine how segregationist practices impaired Alexandria’s African American residents. The event is virtual
  • Old Town Alexandria Fine Art And Design Festival: On Saturday (April 30), more than 100 artisans, crafters, independent consultants and other local small businesses in John Carlyle Square
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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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