Alexandria, VA

City Manager Mark Jinks has proposed a budget this year that includes a real estate tax rate decrease of 2 cents.

The announcement came as welcome news to local property owners, from residents to business owners who faced a particularly difficult year as a result of COVID-19. The announcement was conjoined with a budget that belt tightening that trims down some of the city’s larger ambitions and won’t fill some currently vacant positions.

The budget also faced some detractors who argue that the city should take more steps to ease the burden on local residents and commercial property owners. In a recent Agenda Alexandria meeting, City Council candidate Bill Rossello said the narrative of a lightened burden on local residents doesn’t match the reality of an overall tax increase.

“I look at the budget the way it’s been presented and something that always seems to concern me is when we lead with a narrative around the tax rate,” Rossello said. “The tax rate is only one part of the equation for the actual taxes that people pay… While we’re looking at a proposed 2 cent tax rate decrease, when you do the math, for the average household it comes out to be almost a 6% tax increase in real dollars and that’s what really matters to residents: how much more or how much less am I going to pay?”

On the other side, some of the city’s transit and infrastructure ambitions are being scaled back as a result of the tax rate decrease. For instance, City Manager Mark Jinks said in the meeting that DASH will be forced to choose between density and coverage in a budget that will not allow it to keep all current lines operational and move forward with its planned higher-frequency service in areas of greater density.

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For all the earlier talk of doom and gloom early in the coronavirus financial forecasts, City Manager Mark Jinks’ proposed FY 2021 budget seems relatively painless.

As laid out by Jinks, the operating budget is a 1.9% proposed increase over last year’s, with a 2 cent real estate tax rate reduction, no major service reductions, and fully funds the proposed school CIP and operating budget.

The budget was reviewed at a City Council meeting last night (Tuesday) with a public hearing planned tomorrow (Thursday).

Jinks said the budget was made possible by $11.8 million in expenditure savings, driven in part by leaving 38 currently vacant positions unfilled. These positions, Jinks said, weren’t concentrated in any one particular department but were spread out across the city. No police department, fire department or emergency medical personnel were among the unfilled positions, he said.

The main budget proposed by Jinks includes a real estate tax rate reduction from $1.13 to $1.11, though Jinks also included other options to leave the tax rate as-is and fully finance some programs like a planned overhaul of DASH services.

In the existing budget, DASH will have to reallocate funding away from routes in less dense parts of the city if it wants to achieve its high density transit corridor goals — meaning some residents in areas like Seminary Hill could lose their local bus routes.

On the topic of transit: the budget also included a note that the King Street Trolley is planned to return in September, hopefully at the start of a fall tourist season.

Some of the budget’s goals include a renewed focus on what Jinks called “aggressively increased stormwater utility work,” including increasing maintenance on the stormwater system and new hires from additional engineers to sanitation workers.

A $5 million Holmes Run Trail restoration is also included in capital funding, with the goal of building a stronger dam on the creek that can withstand a harder beating after 2019’s devastating floods.

One of the other anticipated projects moving forward in next year’s budget is municipal fiber.

“We’ve been talking about replacing our rental from Comcast with our own network, which will give us and the school system greater capacity,” Jinks said. “In this project, we’re building two tubes, digging one for ourselves and a vacant tube next to it that we will be working to get a private sector entity to provide broadband service of some kind.”

Jinks said the multi-year construction project to connect 100 city and school facilities will start next year.

One of the biggest expenditures pushed back is a planned City Hall renovation. The city’s facilities are badly outdated, with some infrastructure dating back to just after World War II. Jinks said that renovation was pushed back in part because, with teleworking coming into the fore during the pandemic, “we don’t know what the future workforce will look like yet.”

The budget added 26.5 new positions, 18 of which are in the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services. In large part, these new jobs were part of a process to bring the city’s sanitation work in-house. Jinks said most of those 18 jobs are staffing for vehicles to pick up yard waste.

Jinks said departments scrubbing their budget and Federal aid through the worst of the pandemic played a big role in putting the budget together.

“This was probably the most uncertain budget process we’ve ever had,” Jinks said.

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At the request of the City of Alexandria, Gov. Ralph Northam announced that a 6 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew and state of emergency are in effect in Alexandria and neighboring Arlington.

The announcement comes amid chaos in D.C. as rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol building this afternoon. Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks was on a conference call with other regional leaders for a meeting in Arlington to determine public safety procedures.

Staff photo by Jay Westcott

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For two years, city staff have been haggling over your water bill.

Late last week, the city announced that the State Corporation Commission (SCC) has significantly reduced Virginia American Water Company’s requested increase in customer water rates, which will result in a refund of previous overcharges to customers.

The water rate increase is still increasing by 2.9% — but that figure is substantially lower than what had been originally instated by the Virginia American Water Company. Homes and businesses that were overcharged will receive credits back. For the average home in Alexandria, the increase will be reduced by $40.

According to the press release:

In November 2018, the company applied to the SCC to increase revenue from water customers by up 15.84%, or up to approximately $6.6 million per year. In April 2019, at the direction of the Alexandria City Council, the City formally objected to the increase and encouraged the public to provide input. The City’s primary objections were that the company’s proposed return on equity (i.e., profit margin) should be lower; the rate of bill increases should be gradual and representative of national averages; and costs of serving customers should be appropriately and fairly allocated between residential, commercial and industrial customers.

At a City Council meeting last night, City Manager Mark Jinks outlined the extensive work and behind-the-scenes battles that took place to try to haggle that down — a process that involved pouring over hundreds of pages of documents to outline what the city was getting for what it spent and what a proper return on investment would be.

Jinks explained that there was some “gaming” going on for the Virginia American Water Company’s request in both going for the higher figure and settling slightly lower and in having a short term surge in cash flow.

“It’s our job to represent the users in the community and make sure rate increases are justified based on capital investments the water company has made,” Jinks said. “We don’t want water main breaks, want clean water, but we want a fair rate of return.”

Councilwoman Del Pepper recalled that a few years ago, Alexandria had attempted to purchase the water company’s facilities in Alexandria to handle the water utility internally, but determined that the city couldn’t afford it — partially because the company had bundled Alexandria’s water in with a larger package.

“We made foray to try to buy the water in Alexandria,” Jinks said. “Privately owned water companies in Virginia are rare. This water company buys its water from Fairfax County and runs distribution system.”

The current system of purchasing water from a private company in Alexandria dates back to the early 19th century, and Jinks said if the opportunity came around again to purchase the private utility the city could try to find a way to make it happen.

“For the record, I was not on the City Council when that started,” said Pepper, who is in the final year of a historic term on the council. “I didn’t do it.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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The Alexandria City Council is expected to receive a city council resolution on race and social equity by the end of the year, and will receive recommendations on making the city’s diversity/inclusion statement more racially explicit.

“We’re thinking in working through how to draft a resolution as specific to race and social equity for Council’s adoption,” Jaqueline Tucker, the city’s racial and social equity officer, told Council on Tuesday night.

Tucker has spend the last seven months developing a racial equity training plan for all city staff. She said that city leadership and the department of community and human services employees have received racial equity training, and that she is developing a pilot program for all city staff.

“We’re beginning to map out and sketch how we will train all staff in the coming months,” she said. “I believe that (DCHS will) have all staff trained, at least in a foundational level hopefully by the end of next year, and they’re moving rather rapidly.”

In Alexandria, where you live can have an impact on your lifespan. According to a 2016 study, residents who lived in Seminary Hill neighborhood, for instance, received an average annual income of $187,000 and 95 percent of them have a college education. In the Beauregard area, the average income is $45,000 per year and only 72 percent have a college education. The life expectancy between residents living in the two areas is 84 years for Seminary Hill and 79 years in Beauregard.

Part of Tucker’s work is developing a Housing Equity Plan that acknowledges historical disparities within African American neighborhoods, potentially eliminates zoning and fair housing impediments, and account for the current effect that COVID-19 is having on rental and housing market.

Mayor Justin Wilson said that the actions are necessary to reverse systemic racism in the city.

“We have gone from a government that was an active participant in expanding these inequalities, in addition to just maybe not making them worse but accepting their continuing presence,” Wilson said. “Then we went to try not to exacerbate them further, and now we’re in the next step which is reparative work.”

The city is adopting the Government Alliance on Race and Equity’s Theory of Action in its work:

Normalize

  • Building capacity and knowledge of systemic racism and historically marginalized populations among all City employees
  • Developing shared understanding of key terminology and definitions related to race and social equity
  • Creating opportunities for formal and informal learning in and with community
  • Establishing a city-wide communications style guide and standards

Operationalize

  • Developing and using opportunity mapping to visualize and assess opportunity gaps within Alexandria and drive policy decisions and resources allocation to those most in need
  • Developing department-level indicators to measure progress toward reducing and eliminating disparities identified by ALL Alexandria core teams
  • Understanding and developing skill in using racial equity tools in department decision making processes
  • Creating departmental racial equity action plans

Organize

  • Developing inter-departmental focus on implementing race and social equity in City policy, practice, and budget decisions
  • Developing intra-departmental core teams to identify, assess and evaluate department policy to create strategic actions plans
  • Working with community partners to establish a framework to center the needs and experiences of those most impacted in decision making
  • Supporting community partners and organizations working within Alexandria to advance race and social equity
  • Building and maintaining strategic working relationships with jurisdictions across the region
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(Updated at 11:45 a.m. on September 23) The Alexandria City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved extending the declaration of a local emergency due to the pandemic from the end of this month t0 March 31, 2021.

If approved, the city will end up being under a state of emergency for a little more than a year. It would expire at midnight on March 31.

Council first made the emergency declaration on March 14, when the city only had one positive case and there were 41 cases in Virginia. It was set to expire in June and was extended to the end of September.

There have been 68 deaths and there are or have been 3,716 cases in Alexandria, according to the Virginia Department of Health. Across Virginia, there have been 3,021 deaths and there are or have been 141,138 cases of the virus.

The full emergency declaration is below.

WHEREAS, the Director of Emergency Management of the City of Alexandria, Virginia finds that the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a Communicable Disease of Public Health Threat for Virginia and is of sufficient severity and magnitude to warrant a coordinated response by City departments, agencies, and voluntary organization.

WHEREAS, on March 14, 2020, City Council adopted Resolution No. 2928 confirming the Director of Emergency Management’s Declaration of Local Emergency which extended through June 10, 2020. On June 9, 2020, City Council amended such resolution extending the Declaration of Local Emergency through September 30, 2020.

WHEREAS, the Director of Emergency Management finds that the emergency continues to exist and will exist into the future.

THEREFORE, IT IS HEREBY DECLARED, that a local emergency exists throughout the City of Alexandria; and IT IS FURTHER DECLARED AND ORDERED, that during the existence of said emergency, the powers, functions and duties of the Director of Emergency Management shall be those prescribed by state law and the ordinances, resolutions and operations plans of the City of Alexandria, and that any actions taken under this declaration shall be directed at the prevention or response for, damages, loss, hardship or suffering threatened by, or resulting from, the emergency.

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The Alexandria City Council on Tuesday night unanimously sent a proposal establishing a community police review board back to the drawing board.

In Tuesday night’s legislative meeting, Councilman Mo Seifeldein said that city staff did not include his desire to give the review board independent investigative authority to look into police misconduct and issue subpoenas. Seifeldein said he was clear with his request to City Manager Mark Jinks when Council unanimously directed the creation of the review board proposal in June.

Jinks said that the police department’s investigative authority works well and that he presented a proposal to fit Council’s request.

“I believe that we bought forth a specific proposal that was within the confines, within the parameters, of what we believe Council was looking for — a police review board in an ordinance form,” Jinks said. “We did not interpret Council’s direction to be that a board itself be an investigative authority, and that authority be removed from the police department.”

Seifeldein asked Jinks if he remembered the June meeting and said he does not want to take investigative authority away from the police.

“I don’t know, to be honest with you, Mr. Jinks, too many reasonable people who would have watched that meeting and come up with that same conclusion that the Council did not want to look at investigative authority,” Seifeldein said.

Mayor Justin Wilson said he believed that Jinks did not intentionally mislead Council with his proposal.

“I believe that the city manager and his staff presented a recommendation that is in alignment with what the council requested him to do,” Wilson said.

Jinks presented Council with a proposal that would create an independent auditor to work with the board to conduct “broad evaluations, offer recommendations for improving policing policies, practices, procedures and training.” The proposal limits the board from investigating complaints that occurred before June 9. That includes any complaints against the department, “any financial management, or procurement decisions made by APD… individual hiring, assignment and promotional decisions made by the APD.”

“We do want an independent investigation of some things,” said Councilwoman Amy Jackson. “That’s what the point of this is.”

Councilman Canek Aguirre said staff needs to go back to the drawing board and asked for more information on other community police review boards around the country. In Virginia, there are such boards in Fairfax County, Virginia Beach and Charlottesville.

“We do need to go back to the drawing board to reassess what are our options and power,” Aguirre said, adding that the proposal was created within a short timeframe. “I think that we need to go back and revisit the whole thing.”

Jinks said he understood Council’s request and that he will present an option for the community police review board with subpoena power with an auditor/independent investigator at Council’s next legislative meeting on October 17.

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Morning Notes

Beyer: We Must Protect the U.S. Postal Service —  “I have been in touch with local postal officials, who express their commitment to ensuring the timely delivery and return of all ballots. This could be an issue in many parts of the country, however, and I will be working with my colleagues to exercise constant vigilance and ensure that elections are fair and safe. My Northern Virginia colleague, U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly, serves as the chair of the Oversight Subcommittee on Government Operations, and with his tireless leadership the House will do all it can to fix these problems and restore operations and service at USPS.” [Gazette]

Three City Parks Scheduled for Improvements — “Projects at or near Powhatan, Hooffs Run, and Brenman Parks to occur over next two months.” [Zebra]

City Holding Virtual 9/11 Remembrance Ceremony Online — “Alexandria’s ceremony is prerecorded and virtual to avoid a large gathering during the pandemic. It will include remarks from Mayor Justin Wilson, City Manager Mark Jinks, and representatives from the Alexandria Fire Department, Police Department, and Sheriff’s Office. There will also be a “Return to Quarters” bell-ringing ceremony.” [Patch]

Alexandria Wedding Showcase Goes Virtual — “Tune in virtually on Sunday, Sept. 13 to hear from a variety of vendors on trends, wedding industry changes, and what you need to know while planning your wedding during a pandemic.” [Alexandria Living]

Carlyle Concert Series Starts Friday — “Enjoy the Carlyle Farmers Market while you attend the Concert! Alcohol is available for purchase at select vendor stands and bar as well BYOB-Bring Your Own Beverage will be observed in designated area.” [Facebook]

Harvest Moon Yoga Tonight in Del Ray — “Shine on Harvest Moon! Free outdoor yoga in Del Ray returns every Wed. Sept. 9 – Oct. 14, 6:00 – 7:00 pm at the Del Ray Psych & Wellness lot, 1900 Mt. Vernon Avenue (Corner of E. Bellefonte) in the Heart of Del Ray.” [Facebook]

Today’s Weather — “Cloudy early. Scattered thunderstorms developing later in the day. High 81F. Winds ENE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 50%. Scattered thunderstorms in the evening, then mainly cloudy overnight with thunderstorms likely. Heavy and torrential downpours at times. Low 72F. Winds ENE at 5 to 10 mph. Chance of rain 80%.” [Weather.com]

New Job: Dog Walker and Pet Sitter — “Are you a veterinary technician who has been pet-sitting under the table to supplement your income? Have you worried about your lack of insurance or back-up plan if you got sick? If so, then joining Cat Nanny Jess might be the answer to all your worries!” [Indeed]

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At the end of an exhausting emergency budget cycle, the City Council praised the work of staff for throwing together a $753.3 million fiscal year 2021 operating budget that fills a steep funding shortfall without curtailing city services.

In a 45 minute Zoom meeting, the City Council unanimously approved the budget with little discussion, following a week without any additions or deletions.

Mayor Justin Wilson said the City Council didn’t receive a lot of feedback during the budget process, which was conducted almost entirely online over the last few weeks, and that he believed it meant the community understood what was at stake.

“The cavalry’s not coming,” Wilson said. “There won’t be a big check that lets us cure all our problems. This is very much a stay-at-home budget. This is a budget that hunkers down and waits to see what the environment is like over the next couple of years.”

Wilson said Alexandria was fortunate to avoid some of the deeper, more damaging cuts cities are facing like in Nashville, Tennessee. He also noted that this will be the fourth year without a tax rate increase and the first negative budget since the recession.

The slashed budget came at some cost to city employees and city planning. City Manager Mark Jinks’ scaled-back budget nixed earlier pay increases planned for city employees and eliminated plans to hire many new positions. On the capital side, the redevelopment of T.C. Williams High School and several waterfront projects are being pushed back.

Specifically, the budget is 5.8% lower than the $800 million operating budget Jinks proposed before the COVID-19 pandemic, and includes $46.6 million in cuts to the operating budget and $140.6 million in the capital budget. It closes a nearly $100 million shortfall by implementing a city staff hiring freeze, and holding off on a number of capital projects.

Jinks also proposes reducing the transfer to the Alexandria City Public Schools system by $7 million, equating to a 2% staff bonus, merit step increases and a 1.5% decrease in the employee contribution to the ACPS supplemental retirement plan. The proposed Capital Improvement Project budget has been sharply reduced from $2.1 billion, and while the T.C. expansion at the Minnie Howard campus is delayed, the in-progress plans to renovate MacArthur Elementary School will proceed.

“This was an extraordinary year,” said Councilwoman Redella “Del” Pepper. “It was quite amazing our city manager was able to turn this around. I don’t know how long it is from one budget to another, but it seems like two weeks. That spoke well for him and his department. We can’t see them here, but they ordinarily look exhausted by this point. I’m really very impressed.”

Pepper referenced an op-ed in the Alexandria Times praising the new budget, saying it was representative of feelings in the community-at-large that staff had stepped up to the plate under extreme circumstances.

Jinks said all praise was due to department heads who submitted their own budget cuts and to the fiscal policies of previous councils.

“We were able to have not a budget of gimmicks, rubber bands and duct tape holding it together, but a sound structure able to hold it back and look at where we can make reductions,” Jinks said. “There are dreams we had to defer. It hurt not to put forward the employee pay increase, but compensations are the biggest part of the budget. I appreciate that employees understood that’s what we need to do.”

Staff photo by James Cullum

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There will be no tax increase on the city manager’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget, as the City Council swept through its budget public hearing on Saturday, paving the way for approval next Wednesday, April 29.

Council also unanimously approved the plan for the construction of the southern access to the Potomac Yard Metro station. The access will be a bridge that connects to the northern entrance, and will open at the same time as the station in March 2022.

The remote meeting took an hour and a half, and had only a handful of public speakers tuning in on Zoom.

In February, the Council approved a 2.5 cent real estate tax ceiling, giving themselves some wiggle room for the addition of services and other budget additions. That was an increase from the City Manager Mark Jinks’ initial 2 cent tax increase proposal, but the coronavirus pandemic has since wiped out those plans.

Instead, Jinks released a substantially cut-back $753.3 million fiscal year 2021 operating budget, and on Saturday the Council bypassed its traditional add/delete process without any recommendations. In other words, council members did not add anything to the budget or make additional cuts — a timely process that requires staff to reconfigure the budget proposal before another council review.

“The city manager did revise his budget proposal, and removed his proposed 2 cent tax increase,” Mayor Justin Wilson said in the meeting. “Certainly Council, when we adopt our budget on April 29 could adopt a 2-and-a-half cent increase, which is the level we gave ourselves. We have now completed the add/delete process and there were no proposals for any changes in the proposed budget.”

The budget is 5.8% lower than the $800 million operating budget Jinks proposed before the COVID-19 pandemic, and includes $46.6 million in cuts to the operating budget and $140.6 million in the capital budget. It closes a nearly $100 million shortfall by implementing a city staff hiring freeze, and holding off on a number of capital projects.

Jinks also proposes reducing the transfer to the Alexandria City Public Schools system by $7 million, equating to a 2% staff bonus, merit step increases and a 1.5% decrease in the employee contribution to the ACPS supplemental retirement plan. The proposed Capital Improvement Project budget has been sharply reduced from $2.1 billion, and while the T.C. expansion at the Minnie Howard campus is delayed, the in-progress plans to renovate MacArthur Elementary School will proceed.

Staff photo by James Cullum

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