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Mayor Justin Wilson says its time to take a step back and reassess Alexandria’s approach to student safety.

In a joint City Council meeting with the School Board on Monday night (June 13), Wilson said that the community needs to be educated on how the city and school system plan to make schools safer.

“I do think part of this conversation is to step back, because I don’t think there’s many communities around the country that invest the amount that we do in the very ways that we do in our kids, and clearly we still have kids slipping through the cracks in this institution. That’s sobering for us all.”

Wilson and Gaskins presented the Board with a draft memo that will start a “rigorous engagement” program to talk with youth and parents to “learn what is at the root of youth trauma and violence, and act.”

Wilson said that it’s been an interesting last several weeks since the fatal stabbing of Alexandria City High School Senior Luis Mejia Hernandez on May 24. He also said that there is no one single solution, but that a coordinated approach on improving students safety is about creating a public process and approach to solving the issue.

“I don’t mean to be negative on this, but I’m doubtful that in this effort we will determine some kind of magic thing that we have never thought of,” Wilson said. “I don’t think we’ll have anything like that. But I think it’ll be a conversation around how we provide services, scale, scope, how we target things, and where the need is, and I hope that as we have that conversation, we’ll learn more about the effectiveness of what we do today, rather than unnecessarily (try) dramatically new things.”

Council will discuss the memo at its meeting tonight (June 14).

Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr., who announced his resignation last Friday, did not attend the meeting, and is out of the office until June 21.

Board Chair Meagan Alderton said that the Board needs to improve its efforts to inform to community on ACPS activities.

“I agree,” Alderton said. “I do think we need to do a better job as a Board of educating the community about what actually happens in our schools, because I think that could also shift the conversation. People are making guesses all the time. It becomes counterproductive to what we’re actually trying to do. I second that 100%. I think that there’s an educational component to all of this, so that people just know what’s happening.”

Gaskins said that the memo does not specifically outline City departments for certain projects, since it is the duty of the city and its multiple departments to work collaboratively. She also wants there to be a student summit at some point in the near future to discuss coping with the pandemic and violence-related traumas.

“I think it really is a starting point and call to action to give space for us to listen to our young people, hear what they have to say, be able to evaluate what we’re doing, identify the things that we’re not doing and then put in place a plan that we are holding ourselves accountable to,” Gaskins said at the meeting. “I think this is really an opportunity to think about: How do we activate multiple departments? How do we activate and normalize every resource we have available to ensure the health and safety of our young people?”

School Board Member Abdel Elnoubi said he would do everything to help Council in the effort.

“Politicians and and leaders are looked at as good ones when they can articulate and speak, but we really need some time for people how much we should be listening as well,” Elnoubi said. “Thank you so much for doing this. I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out.”

Former Sheriff Dana Lawhorne watched the meeting from home.

“I’m glad that our City Council and School Board had a robust discussion tonight about the safety and wellbeing of our youth,” Lawhorne said. “I’m encouraged by the plan put forward by Councilwoman Gaskins and Mayor Wilson. We all need to do our part to support it.”

According to a school safety report released in March, 18 ACPS students were arrested in the first two quarters of this school year, in addition to 41 reported fights/assaults and 13 seized weapons. The weapons seized include a gun, five knives, a stun gun, two fake weapons, and pepper spray. Students also filmed dozens of fights and posted them on social media.

At tonight’s meeting, Council will also consider designating former School Board Member Chris Lewis as its designee to the proposed 16-person School Law Enforcement Partnership (SLEP) Advisory Group. That group will make a recommendation this fall to the interim-Superintendent (or new Superintendent) on the future role of school resource officers at Alexandria City High School and Francis C. Hammond and George Washington Middle Schools.

Separately, Council will also consider passing a gun violence prevention resolution, which encourages the school system to “review school curriculum, safety protocols, and professional development” related to gun safety and suicide prevention, as well as the scheduling of School Board work sessions before the start of the 2022-2023 school year to review those measures.

According to the memo:

In the short-term the Alexandria Police Department will continue its work to investigate recent acts of violence and provide appropriate security interventions to make future acts of violence less likely. To sustainably support the resiliency of our youth and prevent violence, we need to listen as much as we talk. We must engage a diverse range of stakeholders to listen to the experiences of our young people and center their voices, learn what is at the root of youth trauma and violence, and act. With this rigorous engagement, we can design and refine the systems and reforms required to:

  • Address youth trauma and mental health
  • Coordinate across sectors to identify challenges, needs, and opportunities
  • Develop sustainable strategies to align services and existing initiatives
  • Identify metrics and transparent processes to hold ourselves accountable
  • Target investments at identified gaps
  • Prioritize equity
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Updated at 7:45 p.m. — A short-staffed Alexandria Police Department is reducing its services to the community, the department announced on Wednesday (June 2).

Police will no longer respond to calls for service that fall under another agency’s responsibility or respond to old crime scenes that show no danger to the public.

“The Alexandria Police Department like most law enforcement agencies across the nation has experienced a significant reduction in their workforce due to resignations and retirements,” APD said in a release. “While APD remains dedicated to providing excellent public safety services, this reduction in officers has affected the way APD will deliver services to the community.”

Police said that the changes will “prioritize the workload to better serve the Alexandria Community.”

The department is budgeted for 311 sworn officer positions, but currently has 291 sworn officers on payroll, which includes 13 that are still in the academy that have yet to fully graduate their police training, according to APD.

Police Chief Don Hayes said that officers will continue to actively police neighborhoods.

“Just like everybody else, the pool is smaller, and everybody’s in the same pool,” Hayes told ALXnow in a recent interview. “When you have Arlington County whose down 60 (officers), Fairfax is down 100, Prince William is down 40, and we’re down about 23 and you’re looking for qualified candidates, but everybody is not qualified to do this job. They just don’t meet the qualifications. And you can’t lower your standards because you’ll have more problems bringing them in than you will without them.”

Mayor Justin Wilson says that he prefers to have APD officers working at the highest level of service, and that the City is working to increase staffing.

“My preference is always going to be that we provide the highest level of service to our residents, all of the time,” Wilson said. “As we work to return to our authorized staffing levels in the Police Department, I understand the Chief’s decision to prioritize response to calls where the physical presence of our officers is most critical. The dedicated men and women of APD have done excellent work, with lower staffing levels, in recent years to keep our community safe. These changes will focus their efforts on the incidents where they can make a real difference in the safety of our City.”

Vice Mayor Amy Jackson says that the move is unfortunate, and that the answer is about budgeting and collective bargaining. She also said she was not surprised by the announcement.

We as a community need to lift up our police department,” Jackson told ALXnow.And I think when our city does that, the region will also do that and we will be able to attract and retain talent with the skill set needed to work here in Alexandria. And right now, we aren’t attracting or retaining the talent that we want here for our department. It’s a sad state of affairs. I believe we have the leadership that will get us to that expectation.”

Police officers got a 6% raise in City Manager Jim Parajon’s Fiscal Year 2023 budget, which goes into effect next month.

The Department will also providing more support for online and phone reporting, and is working on an outreach campaign on the changes.

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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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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’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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The George Washington Birthday Parade returned to Alexandria on Monday after a two year hiatus. The streets of Old Town were lined with celebration for Washington’s 290th birthday.

Alexandria’s health care workers and first responders marched as parade grand marshals. The parade, which started at Gibbon and Fairfax Streets and snaked around City Hall, was attended by thousands. The event is the largest of its kind in the world honoring the founding father and first president.

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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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