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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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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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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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There were a few tears and lots of laughs as former Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne was honored for his career in law enforcement on April 5 (Tuesday).

“I do not know where I would be without the kindness of others,” Lawhorne told friends, family and former law enforcement colleagues packed in Fellowship Hall at the First baptist Church of Alexandria (2932 King Street).

Lawhorne was recognized for his sense of humor and ability to connect with others. He was Sheriff for 16 years (four terms) and an Alexandria Police officer for 27 years.

“Dana, your service in exercising the power with which you were entrusted leads to the conclusion that your character is beyond reproach,” former Commonwealth’s Attorney Randy Sengel said. “It blessed many lives, and I think will stand the test of time as one of the most generous gifts that the city has ever seen.”

Mallory Lawhorne thanked her father for his years of service, and said that it was hard on her family to see Lawhorne hang up his badge.

“The thought of no longer seeing him go to work every day and come home, put his uniform on every day, it’s just it was kind of thinkable,” Mallory Lawhorne said. “He’s been retired since January, I think he’s definitely more than proven that he’s not going anywhere. He’s keeping himself busy. He’s still around. He’s keeping himself in everyone’s lives.”

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Nearly a year after Alexandria launched a flood mitigation program to reimburse projects on private properties, the city is apologizing for some delays with the program and said the process should be streamlined soon.

The Flood Mitigation Grant Program partially reimburses residents to install flood mitigation practices on their property. The pilot program launched last August and received over 175 applications. Applicants can receive a reimbursement of up to 50% of their project costs, up to $5,000. So far, the city has reimbursed nearly $300,000 worth of flood mitigation projects.  Bill Skrabak, deputy director of Infrastructure & Environmental Quality, said the city was hopeful it would get some use but wasn’t prepared for the number of grant requests.

“We launched the pilot phase of the Flood Mitigation Grant Program feeling hopeful people would take advantage — and we’ve been blown away by the tremendous number of applications submitted to the City,” Skrabak wrote in a city newsletter about flood mitigation. It’s taken us a bit longer than expected to process applications and issue payments. “I apologize for the delays you’ve experienced and can promise you we’re working on ways to speed up the application process to make it easier for you. Please bear with us as we streamline our process.”

Still, Skrabak said some residents have been making modifications to their home, like flood gates and sump pumps, which have helped in subsequent floods. The goal, Skrabak said, is to have private flood mitigations help support the bigger public infrastructure projects that store and convey excessive runoff.

“We understand climate change will continue bringing intense storms that wreak havoc on our region,” Skrabak said. “However, residents can take back some control by taking steps to mitigate flooding on their properties with financial assistance from the City.”

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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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Alexandria City Public Schools is requesting an extension of its controversial school resource officer (SRO) program through the end of the 2022-2023 school year.

School Board Chair Meagan Alderton says that the extension is part of the reimagining of the $800,000 program, as Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. will work to develop a School Law Enforcement Partnership (SLEP) Advisory Group and formulate an SRO plan to present to City Council next year.

The SROs — police officers stationed at Alexandria City High School and the city’s two middle schools — were defunded last summer and then brought back in October after Alderton and Hutchings pleaded for their return in the wake of numerous violent incidents with weapons in schools. The SRO program is currently funded through June 30, 2022.

Once formed next year, the advisory group (comprised of ACPS staff, police, students and members of the community) will report to Hutchings, who will take their recommendations to the Board, which will send a finalized plan to City Council for approval. The advisory group will also make recommendations on the bi-annual memorandum of understanding between ACPS and the Alexandria Police Department.

“This will give the SLEP advisory group enough time to form, meet and make recommendations on the school-law enforcement partnership, to receive community and stakeholder input on the program, as well as allow our two elected bodies to make sound decisions on the future of the SRO program,” Alderton wrote in a memo to City Council. “Additionally, the importance of having a security presence in our schools in order to provide safe and secure environments for students, staff, families and community should be maintained while the most appropriate structure for safety within our facilities is determined.”

There are still no SROs at Alexandria City High School. In December, both SROs at ACHS were placed on leave after a “serious complaint” from a former student alleging “sexually inappropriate conversations” while she attended ACHS, and Alexandria Police have since rotated officers in and out of the school on a daily basis.

Council’s vote to defund SROs created a rift between City Council and the School Board that both bodies have publicly expressed a desire to mend.

Mayor Justin Wilson says the SRO program needs to be carefully deliberated.

“In the aftermath of the Council’s decision in October, I have made it clear that I think we need to pull together an inclusive community process to determine a path forward for our City on school safety and security,” Wilson told ALXnow. “Once we put together that process, I certainly support providing the space and time for that process to conclude.”

The extension will be discussed in a School Board meeting tonight (March 24).

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Five months after a 16-hour power outage disrupted Del Ray’s Art On The Avenue festival, Dominion Energy says it will invest $17 million over the next three years to improve reliability in the city.

That was the gist of an hour-long update from Dominion to City Council Tuesday night (March 22), where Bill Murray, Dominion’s senior vice president of corporate affairs and communications, informed City Council that the energy giant plans on spending $3.4 million this year, $8.5 million in 2023 and $5.2 million in 2023 on 20 “incremental reliability investments” in areas affected by outages in Alexandria, and will begin planning with city staff next month.

“We’re going to plan in April to have some workshops with your staff around the first five,” Murray said.

There have been few outages in Alexandria since Art On The Avenue on Oct. 2 — forcing businesses to close for the the busiest day of the year on Mount Vernon Avenue in Del Ray. The weather was nearly perfect that day, with clear blue skies. Since the event, Murray said, Dominion has replaced 1,000 feet of power cables in the area, and will give future Art On The Avenue festivals the same attention as it gives to polling places on Election Day.

“Any of your polling places, regardless of the weather forecast on Election Day, whether it’s bad weather, good weather, whatever it might be, we always have a plan for each individual polling precinct,” Murray said. “We recognize things happen, and we don’t want the marching democracy being interrupted by an outage. So, we’re going to adopt that approach with this particular festival.”

Dominion did not present a PowerPoint presentation to City Council, and did not present details on which areas of the city need improvement, which irked some members.

“I’ll be honest, we were a little hampered by not having something to kind of look at tonight,” said Mayor Justin Wilson, who has been critical of Dominion for years.

Council Member Kirk McPike said that a PowerPoint presentation would have been useful after “repeated failures of our electrical system over the years.”

“We need the people of Alexandria to be able to see what we’re discussing here, what point you’re raising, have a better sense of what’s going on here,” McPike said. “Right now I don’t think they do.”

Dominion last spoke with the council shortly after the Art On The Avenue outage, and provided the city with maps on where it plans on making improvements in the city.

Council Member Alyia Gaskins said she appreciates Dominion’s plan to prevent an Art On The Avenue outage from reoccurring, but that the city hosts multiple large-scale events throughout the year.

“I’m also thinking about the fact that we have so many big, really important events in the city, beyond Art On The Avenue, and that was catastrophic and devastating,” Gaskins said. “Maybe there’s a top five list of events that we know are huge economic generators for the city, and having that same type of pre-scan, pre-assessment, as well as a point person who is on-site would be critical for those events as well.”

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson said that Dominion is a valuable partner, and that she would appreciate its representatives to be on the ground for large festivals.

“I don’t know how you would have enough manpower and boots on the ground to do that for every festival,” Jackson said. “That’s close to impossible, but I’d like to see you try. If you’re promising one to Art On The Avenue, then then absolutely, I’ll take you up on all of them. We’ll give you the calendar.”

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