Newsletter

(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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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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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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A fire truck in Alexandria (file photo by Jay Westcott)

(Update at 2:45 p.m.) It’s no secret that Alexandria’s public safety agencies want a raise in the upcoming city budget, but if they are to get a compensation increase it will be outside of the boundaries of collective bargaining.

After more than a year of organizing, the elections for collective bargaining representation for the city’s first responders will be held between Feb. 5 and Feb. 22. But with a staffing crisis and compensation issues within the Fire Department, Police Department and Sheriff’s Office, it will not be until 2024 until negotiations will be fruitful.

“If we get more than 50% then we’re then officially allowed to negotiate with the city of Alexandria around anything labor related,” Jeremy McClayton, an organizer for the International Association of Firefighters’ Local 2141 union, told ALXnow. “This is the step we need to take that actually get to the negotiating table this fall. Benefits, wages, operational procedures, time off requests and more, and that would take place likely from March until October.”

The Alexandria Democratic Committee has even put forward a resolution calling for a 10% pay increase for the employees to “maintain the current expectation of
response time and level of public safety.”

“Alexandria Firefighters Union IAFF Local 2141 sent a letter requesting a pay increase that states that the City needs to put forward the funding to hire an additional
70 personnel, while also improving the salaries, benefits and working conditions for current employees to prevent their departures for other jurisdictions,” reads the resolution, which is supported by City Council members Aalyia Gaskins, Kirk McPike and Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney David Lord.

The resolution continues.

“This underfunding and understaffing clearly affect public safety as they prevent the Fire Department from adequately staffing rescue vehicles, and possibly leading to the necessity of closing one fire station.

Whereas the Fire Department had to perform extra duties during the pandemic, handling covid patients, and manning testing sites, and Police have also had to perform extra duties, while also experiencing issues of schools reopening, and an increase in violent crimes due to the economic hardship, isolation and mental stress during Covid. The Sheriff’s Office staff has also certainly faced additional issues with Covid in managing inmates in the city’s jail.

The city imposed a pay and hiring freeze during the pandemic, and after more than a year of operating under a City Emergency, all city and state employees got a 1% bonus and merit increases were restored with the passage of the fiscal year 2022 budget. In a rare event, the City also provided city employees with a 1.5% salary increase and $3,000 bonuses at the end of the 2021 calendar year.

“While most of these challenges must wait to be addressed during an upcoming budget process, the Council did vote last month to allocate surplus money from the previous fiscal year and a portion of our second tranche of American Rescue Plan funds to provide new funding to our employees,” Mayor Justin Wilson said. “The package that the Council adopted included an extremely-rare mid-year 1.5% salary increase for all City employees, a $3,000 bonus to all employees, and targeted increases for several positions in the Police, Fire and Sheriff’s Departments.”

“(T)he city has passed a collective bargaining agreement which won’t go into effect until after the next budget, it is important to address these issues now,” the fire department’s union said in another resolution. “It is important that the city responds in good faith before collective bargaining begins for a multi-year contract.”

Ben Saks, president of the International Union of Police Associations Local 5, says that his union has voiced concerns for months.

“The only way to resolve the staffing crisis is to provide a competitive salary, otherwise current officers and potential applicants will continue to go elsewhere in the region,” Saks said. “Our staffing continues to plummet, so we are asking for a 10% across the board salary increase in the FY23 budget.”

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Alexandria Sheriff Sean Casey says the recent actions of a deputy against a YouTuber outside the city jail are “inconsistent” with its policies and procedures.

In a video that posted today (Jan. 20), an Alexandria Sheriff’s Deputy asked that “Constitutional activist” Sean Paul Reyes of Long Island Audit not film outside the city jail. Reyes tells the deputy that he is an independent journalist exercising his First Amendment rights, and then refuses to provide the deputy with his full name.

“This is a public area,” Reyes tells the deputy. “I haven’t committed a crime.”

After refusing to provide his name, the deputy says, “Well, I can also detain you, if you like.”

Casey said that he is aware of the video, and that a full inquiry is underway.

“The Alexandria Sheriff’s Office is aware of the Youtube video posted on January 20 documenting an interaction between a deputy and a member of the public,” Casey posted on social media. “We are actively investigating this incident and understand the public’s concern. Based on our initial review of the video, the actions of the deputy are inconsistent with our policies and procedures. A full inquiry is underway.”

Reyes, who has 182,000 subscribers, and filmed dozens of other videos with law enforcement around the country.

“We’re here today to peacefully exercise our First Amendment right to film in public and publicly accessible areas to promote transparency and accountability within our government and to ensure that our public servants respect our rights and treat us with respect,” Reyes said.

The deputy later drove away from the jail.

“Oh, thank you for leaving, deputy,” Reyes says as the deputy drives away. “Appreciate it. Please just go.”

The Sheriff’s Office did not comment further.

Via Youtube

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With packed boxes by the door, retiring Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne gets a little emotional in his office. After all, he’s been wearing a uniform for 43 years.

There’s a large framed poster of the classic 1950 film “Harvey” on the wall next to his desk — a gift from his deputies who share a fondness for nostalgic movies. In the film, Jimmy Stewart’s good-natured character is pressured against his philosophy of being “Oh, so pleasant,” rather than “Oh, so smart,” in life.

It takes plenty of smarts to be the sheriff for four consecutive terms, but the 64-year-old Lawhorne’s connection to the character of Elwood P. Dowd is more about an ability to empathize with people — a strength he honed from a rough childhood and for decades as an Alexandria Police officer.

“I’m not a degree snob,” Lawhorne said in a recent interview with ALXnow. “That’s always been my Kryptonite. I am not proud of this, but I stopped learning in the seventh grade. The wheels fell off in my life.”

Lawhorne was born in Fredericksburg, and moved to Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood when he was two years old. Lawhorne and his wife, Linda, have been married for more than 35 years. They have three children and two grandchildren.

His parents were raging alcoholics, and he spent much of his youth dealing with the police to handle his mother. He became a police officer when he turned 21, and spent the next 27 years as a cop. Lawhorne’s everyman style has come in handy on multiple occasions, as he founded the police department’s hostage negotiation team in the 1980s. He’s the officer they’d put on the front lines during emergency situations, like talking to jumpers on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.

It’s expected that Lawhorne isn’t going quietly. He hasn’t shied from expressing his disapproval with city leadership throughout his tenure, most recently lambasting the city manager for Alexandria’s flooding issues.

Lawhorne says that a years-long effort to increase stoplight timing at King Street and Russell Road (changing to 30 seconds last year) is a prime example of his disapproval.

“A 22-second green light backs up Russell Road,” Lawhorne says. “We all suffered years of asking the city to change it. Why couldn’t we have a 30-second light like everybody else? One time I went to see a dear friend of mine who was dying. Her last few days on this earth and her sister said she couldn’t go pick her up some prescription drugs because of the traffic backup on Russell. I mean, come on.”

Lawhorne’s not going away anytime soon. He just started a new firm, Dana Lawhorne and Associates, with a focus on helping businesses, private citizens and neighborhoods cut through some of the red tape at City Hall.

ALXnow: How are you feeling these days? Forty-three years is a long time.

Lawhorne: It is. I have mixed emotions. I definitely feel like I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. Sixteen years ago, I ran for sheriff to do five things. I did that and more, which I feel really good about. I just feel sad that I won’t be doing something that I’ve dreamed about since I was 14 years old.

ALXnow: Are you going to miss the uniform? 

Lawhorne: Yes. It fills me with pride. It’s like armor. It’s the number one symbol of who we are and what we are about, which is protecting and serving everyone. I always have a uniform on in my mind, because it seems like I can never separate myself from a duty that I took an oath for and still believe in. I never feel like I’m not wearing the uniform, even when I’m not working, no matter where I am or what I’m doing.

ALXnow: Why did you start the police department’s hostage negotiations team?

Lawhorne: I did that about 22 years. It’s all about finding what’s missing. I could look at something or you could tell me a story and I would figure out, “Okay, there’s something missing from that story.” That came in very handy as a detective, and in 1984 our hostage negotiations team really didn’t exist. That’s what was missing. They didn’t train. They weren’t organized.

ALXnow: Can you talk a little bit about your philosophy toward emotional engagement with people in your staff, in the jail, even at City Council? 

Lawhorne: I can only trace it back to growing up and being a troublemaker understanding troublemakers and growing up in a household where my parents were alcoholics. My father was a nice man. When he drank he became nicer and very passive. My mom was a nice person, but when she drank it was a total opposite. It was Jekyll and Hyde. And you never knew what you were going to get on any given day. It was bad physically, emotionally and psychologically. My mom would tear up the house, throw what we had in the yard, run up and down the street in a bathrobe and bang on the neighbor’s door.

We had to call the police all the time. My other siblings moved out as soon as they could, and it was just my younger sister and me, sometimes holding her bedroom door shut to keep her from coming out and inflicting harm on us. Because of that I grew up totally disengaged, battling depression in school, full of insecurities and all the problems that come with growing up in that type of environment.

Where does the empathy come from? I’ve always put myself in that other person’s shoes because I’ve seen all walks of life, from the millionaire to the homeless person, and I’ve experienced the generosity of both. I just never ever taken myself out of being that kid who was calling the police and looking for somebody to step up and help. I feel like if I was ever in position to make things better for someone to try to take away a little bit of their pain, then I was going to do that.

ALXnow: How do you deal with depression? Do you still?

Lawhorne: One word — Linda. Since I met her in 1977, she has been the person who has kept me focused and helps navigate the things that keep me down. I am lucky to have married the perfect partner. It’s important to have that when you lead with your heart.

ALXnow: Do you lead with your heart? 

Lawhorne: Yes. It’s a lot harder than leading with your brain.

ALXnow: What do you mean?

Lawhorne: If you lead with your brain you’re a very linear thinker. You know, if you goof up once you’re out. That sort of thing. I’m more tolerant of my staff than most in my position. I believe in second and third chances, when warranted. I believe in giving people opportunities, proper training, and development coaching to make them successful, and even that process can be very painful.

I like to give people a chance, but if they don’t take the opportunity and do something again, they’re out. But that’s hard to do. One of the hardest things that I’ve had to do over the last 16 years is balance the person and who they are and what’s going on with them, especially on a personal level, with the responsibilities of their offices.

ALXnow: What’s the plan after you leave office?

Lawhorne: I actually formed an LLC. It’s called Dana Lawhorne and Associates. You like that?

ALXnow: What are you going to be doing?

Lawhorne: Just helping people and businesses navigate problems at City Hall. It can be a small business or a neighborhood that can’t quite figure out how to get something done because they’re caught up in red tape. You know, folks pay attorney lots of money for the services I’m going to be offering. I can do it for way less, for, let’s say a cheeseburger.

ALXnow: Don’t you want to get paid for your work?

Lawhorne: To me, making money is not my goal. I do not need to do that. I worked 43 years with the city government, and if I can’t retire comfortably then I’ve done something wrong.

ALXnow: How does the incoming city leadership look to you?

Lawhorne: I’m very encouraged by what I’ve seen so far, and I believe that with the new city manager and the energy from this new council is going to get us results. This status quo philosophy must change, and I believe now we’re going to move in a different direction, because the the priorities the residents, the priorities of our community will focused on, ahead of the priorities of others.

ALXnow: Would you be more effective as a problem solver outside of power?

Lawhorne: Yes. The biggest promise city hall has is loving to put labels on people. Dana is a troublemaker.

I go to the meetings and I listen to the community. Why does it take me 40 minutes to go from the 600 block of Russell Road to King Street, to go six blocks? It’s just the most frustrating thing I’ve ever seen in my life. In my office, I try to help people, not turn them away. I don’t get this. We’ll spend more time trying to figure out how not to do something.

A 22-second green light backed up Russell Road for years. We all suffered years of asking the city to change it, and nobody would put it up for discussion. I tried with the Traffic and Parking Board three times. Why couldn’t we have a 30-second light like everybody else? One time I went to see a dear friend of mine who was dying. Her last few days on this earth and her sister said she couldn’t go pick her up some prescription drugs because of the traffic backup on Russell. I mean, come on.

ALXnow: Are you going to miss the inmates of the jail?

Lawhorne: Yes. I grew up understanding what sobriety can do for an individual and their families. I always told them that crime isn’t just about them and their victims, it’s about their families. Their families are suffering as much as they are for their mistake.

I never had a foundation of education. That’s always been my Kryptonite. I am not proud of this, but I stopped learning in the seventh grade. The wheels fell off in my life. I’ve tried to teach them the importance of sobriety, education and transitioning to a better place.

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The William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center (Photo via City of Alexandria)

Over the last decade, Alexandria’s jail has been getting a little less crowded.

Since 2011, the average population at the William Truesdale Adult Detention has generally trended downward. Even pre-COVID there was an 18% population decrease since 2011, which only became more pronounced during the pandemic. In 2011, the average daily population in the Alexandria jail was 430. In 2019 it was 352. This year it’s 277.

Alexandria isn’t alone in this. Nationwide, the incarceration rate has been on the decline since peaking around 2008, according to Pew Research. In Fairfax County, the jail population has nearly halved sine 2010.

Commonwealth Attorney Bryan Porter said that, beyond the national trend, some of that decline comes from a local move away from incarceration as the primary response to conviction. Porter said at his office that the emphasis has been on mental health treatment and substance abuse court to decrease the number of people in jail for property crimes and non-violent offenses.

“I also think you have to give some credit, how much I don’t know, to the fact that in Alexandria we have tried to put more emphasis on addressing the root problems of crime,” Porter said. “The Alexandria Jail is known for the programs of people housed there, like GED and substance abuse programs to give them the tools to reduce recidivism.”

Porter said both state-wide prison populations and local jail populations have been gradually trending downward for inmates with non-violent charges or convictions. Overall crime has been declining as well, though Porter acknowledged that violent crime has been increasing.

“Over the past 12-24 months nationwide there has been an uptick in violent offenses,” Porter said, “and I think [locally] we’ve seen that we’ve had some increase in firearm incidents.”

Sheriff-elect Captain Sean Casey said some of the jail population decreases could be credited to legislative changes.

“The legislature has made legal changes over the years that deal with criminal justice reform,” Casey said. “There’s been bond reforms, so more people are getting bonds and getting out, rather than just sitting in jail. If more people are getting out on bond, that’s fewer people (who) are in here.”

Casey said those changes have reduced the number of inmates in jail for larceny or drug charges.

Porter is a little more skeptical that state-level changes have impacted the local jail population.

“At least locally, state changes haven’t had as much of an impact, because my office has historically been ahead of the curve on these issues,” Porter said. “For instance, even though larceny threshold remained $200 until 2020 or 2019, we had upped it internally and were not prosecuting thefts for less than that as felonies. Same thing with drug possession. Simple possession: we’ve always been really keen to get those cases diverted or treated as misdemeanors. But the reality for marijuana was no one was going to jail for simple possession. I don’t think statewide changes really have had much of an impact on the jail population locally.” Read More

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Hundreds of people turned out for the lighting of the menorah and Christmas tree at Pat Miller Square in Del Ray on Sunday night, December 5.

The evening was full of families and friends caroling with hot chocolate with marshmallows.

Retiring Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne made the countdown to light the 30-foot-tall tree.

“Thank you for 43 years of supporting me,” Lawhorne said. “I’ve loved every minute of it.”

Last year’s public tree lighting was canceled by the pandemic, and the event was a little smaller than in years past. Santa Claus, for instance, made a drive-by appearance, but was unable to stop for photos due to his busy schedule.

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The Alexandria City Council will likely hire the next city manager before the end of the year, and next week the city will hold a hybrid town hall on the “qualities and values” the next manager should possess.

After six years as the highest-ranking government employee in Alexandria, City Manager Mark Jinks hinted to ALXnow in May that he was going to retire, and then made it official a month later. The city is currently undergoing a national search for his replacement.

The town hall will be held in-person at City Hall at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, September 22. Residents can also fill out an online survey.

A number of top officials in Alexandria are retiring, or announced their retirement this year, including City Councilwoman Del Pepper, Police Chief Michael Brown, and Sheriff Dana Lawhorne.

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In his award-winning poem “I Cry”, Anthony Talbert laments over being incarcerated in the Alexandria Jail.

“Growing up I was told that the eyes are the windows to the soul,” reads Talbert’s poem. “So I cry to cleanse my soul of all the torment it holds.”

The Alexandria Jail gives inmates a lot of time for abstract thought, and this week virtual awards were presented to their best writers in the third-ever creative writing contest. Thirteen participants, who ended up submitting 24 pieces of work, had a month to create a new piece of fiction, non-fiction and poetry.

The event was conducted by Heard, a local nonprofit that works with inmates at the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center and also the Arlington County Detention Center.

The judges for the contest were Mary Wadland, publisher of The Zebra Press, historian Char McCargo Bah, and Wendi Kaplan, the former poet laureate for Alexandria.

“We are extremely grateful for Heard’s continued outreach and engagement with those in our custody,” said Sheriff Dana Lawhorne. “Not only does the contest provide them with a creative outlet to express themselves, but it gives them the chance to have their voices carry out into the community and beyond.”

Awards were presented to the following inmates:

Poetry

  • First Place — Anthony Talbert for “I Cry”
  • Second Place — William Walsh for “Why Did You Leave?”
  • Third Place — S. Amir for “The Most Beautiful Battle”

Fiction

  • First Place — Michael Pixley for “The Claw”
  • First Place (tie) — D. Miller for “Mental Love”
  • Second Place — D. Miller for “The Moment I Fell”

Non-Fiction

  • First Place  —  “Guatemala” by Anonymous
  • Second Place — S. Amir for “Despised and Rejected”
  • Third Place — Peter Le for “Love Letter”

The winning poetry entry is below the jump.

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