Alexandria, VA

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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The following Letter to the Editor was written by Jennifer Ayers, the executive director of ALIVE!

A few weeks ago, like many, I wondered if coronavirus was just another bad case of the flu. Would it just pass?

We’ve all learned it’s much more serious than that. I could not have imagined that I would find myself working extensive hours (from home, mostly, in between taking care of two young children and one nervous beagle mix) and find myself cold calling my counterpart in New Rochelle, New York, because I saw a news clip on CNN of them in action doing a drive-thru-food distribution, and wondering how they did it so that if I had to, we could find a way to replicate it here in Alexandria.

Little did we know, we would be doing not just one, but now four drive-thru mass food distributions within two weeks and find ourselves figuring out supply chain issues. Yet here we are and, believe it or not, I’m not as overwhelmed by the problem and what lies ahead as I am by the love and support I am finding from the people of Alexandria, the place I’ve called home for 20 years and the organization I’m proud to lead.

We’ve served about 8,000 people, equating to more than 40,000 meal equivalents over the course of both drive thru distributions. Read More

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City Manager Mark Jinks presented the City Council with preliminary estimates for a $743.5 million fiscal year 2021 budget on Wednesday night — a $56.4 million reduction from the budget he unveiled in February.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Alexandria to drastically change its budget over the course of the last month. Preliminary cuts include eliminating the previously proposed 2 cent real estate tax increase, implementing a city hiring freeze [except $2 million to hire new Health Department staff], deferring raises for city staff and reducing the multi-million dollar transfer to Alexandria City Public Schools.

The budget would be an $18 million reduction over the current FY 2020 budget of $761.5 million.

Mayor Justin Wilson, who presided over the meeting with his colleagues via conference call, said that the impact will be felt in the city for years.

“The seven of us [on council] as well as the staff need to communicate to the public and make sure our residents are prepared and ready for the types of choices that we’re going to have to make about the role and scope of government in the city of Alexandria over the next several years,” Wilson said. “I think it’s right that it’s not just a one-year [or] two-year conversation. This is a multiple-year conversation.”

The previously approved budget also covered the $241.4 million transfer to the Alexandria City Public School system and fully funded the renovation of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School and the expansion of T.C. Williams High School. City and ACPS staff will now have to iron out which projects will get deferred and where budget reductions can be made.

“I don’t have a number yet. We have to have discussions with the schools,” said Jinks, who asked staff to make $100 million in cuts. “If the city’s budget goes down by $56 million, that means that every part of the budget needs to be looked at and I think that means reducing the ACPS operating transfer is something that’s going to need to occur to some degree.”

The uncertainty of COVID-19 will likely also impact the state’s budget, including millions to the city for its Combined Sewer Outfalls project.

“We had a conference call with the governor with mayors and chairs in the region on Friday, and he made it very clear that the budget that he sends back to the General Assembly for the reconvened session would be radically different than the budget that was approved by the General Assembly,” Wilson said. “That certainly means that money that is in there for the city and specifically for the CSO project may be very well at risk… Obviously there’s an expectation that that pretty much anything that’s in the General Assembly’s approved budget is at risk.”

City Council will receive the budget proposal next Tuesday and then will have a meeting on the proposed budget on April 14. The budget will be adopted on April 29.

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Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson is full of praise for the city’s COVID-19 response efforts, but the hard times are just beginning, he told ALXnow in a recent interview.

“Everyone is trying to find so many different ways to give back,” Wilson said. “It’s been very gratifying and we’re gonna need it because the need is only going to be exacerbated over the next couple of weeks and months, if not longer.”

It’s one thing to lead your city through an emergency, it’s quite another when you have to do it stuck at home with your family.

ALXnow: How are you feeling? Any symptoms?

Wilson: I’m not running as much as I’d like, and I’m sleeping less than I normally do. But I hang in there. I feel fine.

ALXnow: What happens if you contract the virus and get sick? Would the vice mayor take over until you could take back the mantle?

Wilson: Yeah, if I’m unable to perform my duties the code calls for the vice mayor to take that on, either temporarily or permanently depending on what my situation is.

ALXnow: In the meantime, you have a day job as a senior director with Amtrak, and your wife and two kids are also in the house with you. Can you describe the dichotomy of balancing all of that and your city responsibilities?

Wilson: We are all on top of each other a lot right now, but we’re hanging in there. The kids have occasionally been doing school work. ACPS is doing a good job of doing some e-learning things for them. One of my kids is working really hard on her work when she’s not on online classes.

It’s been a little crowded. We’ve never spent so much time together.

ALXnow: How would you assess the educational programming that ACPS is currently providing your children?

Wilson: I think ACPS has done an extraordinary job. The teachers have done an extraordinary job of just totally reworking how they deliver education in a matter of days and hours in some cases.

They’re still working at it every day, and they’re making changes and enhancements and things like that. But it’s really kind of amazing, because they went from a traditional classroom instruction model that is found in communities all over the country to a completely different model and they did that in a couple of days. Now, they still have got work to do and there are still kids they’re probably not engaging… and I think there’s some gaps in kindergarten through second grade, but from what I have witnessed in my own household and am hearing from other parents, they’ve done a pretty darn good job.

The dedication of all these teachers is incredible. They’re sitting there trying to craft instructions from their homes and dealing with their families at the same time.

ALXnow: Meanwhile, the city council is looking at a hiring freeze, adjusting construction timelines and capital investments and other changes before it passes its budget on April 29. What are you expecting from the city manager’s office, which has asked staff to make $100 million in cuts?

Wilson: I think the first step is the manager needs to come up with a set of revenue re-estimates… Obviously the revenue re-estimates are going to be cataclysmic — completely change the entire complexity of the budget. What we’ve asked the manager to do is the provide the revenue re-estimates we would normally expect at this point, but also essentially provide a new budget to accommodate these new estimates.

That’s what he’s going to do, and council will do what we normally do in the process, although on a much more accelerated timeline where we have the opportunity to make changes to what he proposes, and we’ll do that in the April timeframe.

It’s going to be tricky. I think, in addition to revenue deterioration we’re going to have significant expenses that are part of this. And then we’re going to have to account for the changes at the state level. The state government is clearly going to have to take another look at their budget, and that’s going to potentially impact local government.

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Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks said Monday that the COVID-19 pandemic has created the worst financial crisis he’s ever seen, and has asked staff to make $100 million in budget cuts and prepare for a $35 million revenue shortfall in his fiscal year 2021 budget.

“We crashed, and we don’t know how long this is going to last, when we’re going to come back up,” Jinks told the City Council/School Board Subcommittee in an online meeting. “I’ve told staff we need $100 million in cuts and savings between the current fiscal year and next fiscal year, is my rough guess. That will be savings and looking at capital projects and seeing what we need to cancel or what we need to reschedule to a future year.”

“Our rough estimate is that we’re going to be down $35 million between now and the end of the year. We thought we were going to be up $10 [million] and we’re down $35 [million],” Jinks added.

On Tuesday, City Council will hold an emergency meeting to suspend penalties for businesses and hotels that will not be paying the city’s dining and transient lodging taxes. The city will also impose a moratorium on penalties and interest for business license taxes and consider a resolution to change the filing deadline for business personal property and elderly and disabled tax relief applications.

Mayor Justin Wilson said Alexandria is still in the firefighting phase of dealing with COVID-19, and that the pandemic unfortunately struck the city in the middle of its budget process.

“I think everybody needs to understand the budget implications of this. The financial implications of this are dramatic and will last us a long time,” Wilson said. “There’s also an incredible amount of uncertainty… It would be challenging under the best of circumstances.”

In the meantime, Alexandria City Public Schools are also shut down until the end of the year, and staff are concerned about being able to provide enough free food for students at its designated pickup points.

“The major concern for us is making sure we can continue to provide food for our kids, because we have a lot of students who rely on school lunches and school breakfasts as their means of food every day,” Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. said. “This is not going to end how productive our students in the next generation will be, but we’re going to still have to respond to providing those necessary supports in regards to food, academics, social and emotional needs of our kids in order for them to thrive.”

The city has to pass its fiscal year 2021 budget on April 29, and it will be a much different document than Jinks’ original $800 million budget proposal, which included 34 new full-time positions and a 1.5% pay increase for all city staff. Since the COVID-19 shutdown across the country, the city has also implemented a hiring freeze and put compensation initiatives on hold.

The manager’s budget also included the $2.1 billion, fiscal year 2021-2030 Capital Improvement Program, which covers city and school system improvements, including the $122 million waterfront plan, the eventual renovation of city hall, $7.5 million for bridge repairs and refurbishments, $17.6 million to support Metro’s capital improvements and $30.5 million toward flood mitigation along the waterfront.

Now those projects will have to be revisited.

Jinks said that the city’s economic recovery will likely take well into next year, and said he is asking staff to prepare a budget for a worst case scenario.

“This is the biggest crisis I have ever seen,” Jinks said. “That said, we’ve got talented staff, we’ve got options. We’ve just got to put our nose to the grindstone and figure out what those solutions are and do it so that we’re not optimistic and end up having another crisis six months from now if we overestimated revenues.”

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City Manager Mark Jinks says that his proposed fiscal year 2021 budget will be deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and predicts that proposed capital investments will take a hit.

“There will be notable changes in the budget, probably I would suspect capital investments,” Jinks told ALXnow. “We’ve got projects related to city facilities, school facilities that we could do differently. Maybe we talk to Arlington about how the Glebe Road Bridge could stay up as it is for another year. Maybe it can’t.”

That could mean also mean postponing a renovation of City Hall and the construction of the expanded T.C. Williams High School campus.

The plan to construct Douglas MacArthur Elementary School is still on track, but when asked about the T.C. expansion, Jinks said, “We’ll see.”

Jinks added, “We know that next year we’ll have revenue losses, because once we get through this pandemic, and then they start to ramp up, businesses will reopen and people will get comfortable about spending again, and then we’ll get back to our normal revenue total.”

On Saturday, the city declared a state of emergency over the pandemic. There are four positive cases in the city and one Alexandria resident infected in New York City.

The city manager’s proposed $2.1 billion, fiscal year 2021-2030 Capital Improvement Program covers city and school system improvements, including the $122 million waterfront plan, the eventual renovation of city hall, $7.5 million for bridge repairs and refurbishments, $17.6 million to support Metro’s capital improvements and $30.5 million toward flood mitigation along the waterfront.

“The dollar total of the budget is going to need to change substantially,” Jinks said. “There’s a new reality. Hopefully, in a couple of months, everybody has taken really proper precautions, sanitized as best we can and don’t spread it, hopefully, contain it within that timeframe. In the meantime, the four functions of city government — police, fire, the jail and emergency communications are all operational and we’re all taking precautions.”

City council on March 11 capped the real estate tax rate for this year’s budget at $1.155 — potentially a 2.5 cent tax increase for residents. That means they will be unable to raise taxes above that amount in this budget cycle. City Council will adopt its budget on April 29.

On Wednesday night, the Council directed Jinks and his staff to prepare suspending the city’s dining and transient lodging tax penalties.

Mayor Justin Wilson has been in city government for more than nine years, and has talked with his regional counterparts about comparing the economic impact of COVID-19 to federal sequestration and the 9/11 attacks — put together.

“It’s absolutely surreal. I mean, this is something that we never imagined,” Wilson told ALXnow. “I think we imagined it, but just watching it play out in real time, it’s just been… Sometimes I feel like it’s a nightmare. And then, you know, you wake up.”

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The Alexandria City Council will suspend the city’s dining and transient lodging taxes in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

City staff said at an emergency meeting last night (Wednesday) that they will present the Council with legislation to not penalize businesses for not paying their dining tax and/or transient lodging tax, and would then work out a payment plan for missed months at a later date.

“At the end of April, for example, you might say we are going to waive penalty and interest on those two months,” City Manager Mark Jinks explained to Council [which had three members call-in to the meeting]. “And then we’ll work out a payment plan for the rest of the year on those two months. But then once, whatever month it is we get back up and running, those taxes ought to be paid on time, so we don’t have a penalty.”

On Saturday, the city declared a state of emergency over the pandemic. There are four positive cases in the city and one Alexandria resident infected in New York City.

Jinks said that the losses will be considerable.

“The dollar loss of the sales tax is $2.5 million a month just in earnings,” Jinks said. “Grocery stores are bringing in sales tax, but clearly restaurants are part of that, hotels are part of that. Transient occupancy is $1 million a month, and restaurants [bring in] $2 million a month.”

Mayor Justin Wilson said that the COVID-19 pandemic is “surreal”, and that federal and state support will be important in dealing with the days ahead.

“I have gotten an enormous number of requests from residents and businesses for all kinds of different needs, that exists in the community,” Wilson said. “These are serious, significant needs and we just simply do not have the capability to do this. That all being said, there are things we can do. There are things we should do and we need to do them quickly.”

Im impressed with the business friendly response from the City of Alexandria. We have seen a tremendous willingness for…

Posted by Bill Blackburn on Thursday, March 19, 2020

On Saturday, the Council also approved the allocation of $100,000 in matching emergency funds to the ACT Now COVD-19 Response Fund with a goal of raising $200,000 so that nonprofits in the city can apply for and receive grants. The fund was established during the shutdown of the federal government in 2018, and more than $57,000 was distributed to eight organizations and more than 200 people were served, according to the city.

“I’ve heard from business owners who are in tears, quite honestly, concerned about the future of their business and the future and the welfare of their employees,” Wilson continued. “Folks are stepping up in so many different ways to help out our fellow residents, and that’s what this community is all about. And unfortunately, we’re just getting started.”

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Alexandria declared a state of emergency on Saturday, and the City Council also approved measures to assist the community as it weathers the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mayor Justin Wilson said that the actions taken by City Council on Saturday are only the beginning.

“We are going to be speaking over the next couple days and weeks about other actions that we will be taking within city government, as well as in partnership with the state and federal government to support our residents, as well as to support our businesses during this incredibly difficult time, which unfortunately will likely become more difficult as we go,” Wilson said.

City Manager Mark Jinks said that the declaration is “usual and customary” in that it gives him additional powers, primarily to be able to direct resources within the city border for public purposes. Jinks also said that federal and state government will set up programs to reimburse local governments for their expenses during an emergency, and that such an emergency declaration can be the bar that is set for reimbursement.

“This is pretty standard practice in emergency management,” said Jinks, who also presented council with an updated succession list should he become infected by COVID-19. If Jinks is incapacitated during the emergency, then his responsibilities will fall to the three deputy city managers, followed by Director of Transportation & Environmental Services Yon Lambert and the Director of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities James Spengler.

‪The Council has unanimously approved ratification of a Local Emergency Declaration to support the City’s efforts to respond and address the COVID-19 outbreak. ‬

Posted by Justin Wilson on Saturday, March 14, 2020

Governor Ralph Northam signed an emergency declaration for Virginia on Thursday, and President Trump signed a national emergency declaration on Friday. Also on Friday, Alexandria City Public Schools announced that they would be closing until after spring break.

Northam announced on Saturday that a Virginia resident has died from COVID-19. There is currently one positive presumptive case in Alexandria, and 41 cases throughout Virginia.

Pam and I were deeply saddened to learn that a Virginian has died from #COVID19. The health of Virginians continues to…

Posted by Governor of Virginia on Saturday, March 14, 2020

Council approved the allocation of $100,000 in matching emergency funds to the ACT Now COVD-19 Response Fund with a goal of raising $200,000 so that nonprofits in the city can apply for and receive grants. The fund was established during the shutdown of the federal government in 2018, and more than $57,000 was distributed to eight organizations and more than 200 people were served, according to the city.

“At that time the need was not as great as we anticipate it’s going to be now, but we managed to help about eight organizations, 200 families that were impacted by the federal shutdown,” Deputy City Manager Debra Collins told Council.

Council also unanimously approved an allocation of $20,000 to ALIVE! to buy bulk food equivalent to 17,000 meals. ALIVE! is currently working with the city and buying food to support the city should deliveries need to be made to people under quarantine without food reserves at home.

Staff anticipate “that there will be an even greater financial need for resources,” noted a city report. “As time goes on, the hardships on individuals and families will intensify. Many already on the financial edge may be pushed into crisis. The demand for emergency health services, food, rent, utility, child care and mental health services is anticipated. This is when we will need our non-profit service providers the most.”

The full emergency declaration is below.

WHEREAS, the Director of Emergency Management of the City of Alexandria, Virginia finds that, due to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). 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.

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, as well as the Governor’s Executive Order of March 12, 2020, the President’s Declaration of National Emergency of March 13, 2020, 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.

The declaration is effective March 14, 2020, at 1700 hours and this declaration shall expire at June 10, 2020, unless extended or sooner terminated by the Director of Emergency Management in writing.

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Alexandria may allocate $6 million to reopen closed portions of the Holmes Run Trail.

The trail, which was damaged in last July’s flash flooding after the Barcroft Dam overflowed, in addition to previous flood damage from 2018, is currently closed in four sections. City Manager Mark Jinks has proposed new capital funding to reopen all four sections.

If approved by the City Council as part of this year’s budget and Capital Improvement Program process, trail users will still have to wait a couple of years for it to fully reopen. Repairs will be designed and planned in Fiscal Year 2021 and construction will take place in Fiscal Year 2022.

“The City recognizes the impact these trail closures have on the many residents and visitors who use Holmes Run Trail and appreciates the community’s patience as City staff works to fund, plan, design and construct the necessary improvements to make the trail fully functional once again,” said a press release.

The full city press release is below.

Alexandria City Manager Mark Jinks has proposed $6 million in capital funds to restore public access to the portions of the Holmes Run Trail closed following damage sustained during heavy rainfall.

In July 2019, Alexandria received a month’s worth of rain in approximately one hour, which led to flooding that damaged portions of the trail and left it unsafe for public access. Holmes Run is subject to water surges from stormwater that enters the run from various points, and these surges can be heavy when combined with automatic, controlled releases from the upstream Barcroft Dam.

While some problems have been repaired by City maintenance crews already, four locations (including two bridges) remain closed due to the devastating level of damage. These four sections of the trail suffered severe erosion and are structurally compromised. A map of the current closures and detour routes are available at the Holmes Run Trail Closures page.

The cost to address the current issues and rebuild the trail exceeds existing City resources and available state aid. The City Manager’s February 18 budget proposal funds design and engineering in Fiscal Year 2021, and construction starting in Fiscal Year 2022. City Council will adopt the Capital Improvement Program on April 29.

The City recognizes the impact these trail closures have on the many residents and visitors who use Holmes Run Trail and appreciates the community’s patience as City staff works to fund, plan, design and construct the necessary improvements to make the trail fully functional once again.

While temporary warning signage and barriers have been installed at all trail closures, City staff is actively working to develop more robust detour route signage to help trail users navigate the closures.

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