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Douglass Cemetery has been damaged in recent flooding, photo courtesy Michael Johnson

Alexandria has had a few promising starts so far in the 2022 legislative session, with preliminary funding and authority granted on some key issues.

In a legislative update to the City Council last night (Tuesday), Legislative Director Sarah Graham Taylor outlined some of the early successes.

Taylor said Delegate Elizabeth Bennett-Parker has been spearheading legislation that would allow localities to continue with greater virtual representation in public meetings even after the pandemic.

“[A bill to] increase opportunities for electronic participation in public meetings… passed out of the general laws subcommittee today unopposed,” Taylor said. “We’re eally excited to see that bill move forward. It’s something the city has been really focused on both as vice mayor and now as a delegate. [We’re] really pleased to be a part of that and see that move forward. It’s something that will be incredibly valuable to our boards and commissions; to be able to operate in a virtual environment even outside of a declared emergency or pandemic.”

Taylor said the pandemic has been a sort of pilot for virtual engagement.

“It’s really been an opportunity for us to learn how best to not only put our public engagement out into the universe but to create opportunities to create two-way engagement with our public bodies,” Taylor said. “This bill goes a long way to creating more opportunities.”

Another preliminary success has been funding to restore the Douglass Memorial Cemetery, a historic Black cemetery in Alexandria under threat of being washed away by recent flooding. The outgoing governor’s budget includes $500,000 for the restoration of the cemetery, and State Senator Adam Ebbin has put in a request for an additional $500,000.

“[The project cost is] estimated at $2 million, would put state investment at 50%,” Taylor said. “[We’re] discussing it not only as preservation of a historic African-American cemetery but also a flooding issue, which is something very front and center in the discussion this session.”

The outgoing budget also includes $40 million for the city’s combined sewer overhaul (CSO) project, but Taylor said there’s some concern that CSO funding could get more scarce as Richmond is pushed to move up its CSO timeline.

“The city’s name has come up quite a bit this week in relation to Richmond’s CSO project, and while it’s always lovely to hear Alexandria as an example of what a city can do when its feet are held to the fire, it’s been brought up in relation to Richmond’s CSO deadline,” Taylor said. “You might see Alexandria used as an example of why to push Richmond on their CSO deadline.”

But Taylor said the city’s concern is that if Richmond’s CSO timetable is moved up, it could put the two cities in a battle royale for a limited annual pot of funding.

“If Richmond is accelerated, that puts us in competition for resources,” Taylor said. “We want to a timeline [where] everyone can have access to resources, not all competing for a limited pot.”

Crossover, the last day for the legislative houses to act on legislation, is on Tuesday, Feb. 15. The last day for bill approval is March 10 and the Governor is required to take action on bills by April 11.

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A simulation of in-person schooling in Nov. 2020. (Photo via ACPS)

Alexandria City Public Schools is sticking with its proposed 10.25% salary increase for all employees, and Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Jr. says that number will not change based on potential guidance from Governor Glenn Youngkin.

“Regardless of what the governor says or does, we have positioned ourselves to continue to increase compensation for our staff,” School Board Chair Meagan Alderton said at a budget retreat last week. “This is the type of proactive intentional work that will, I think, makes us successful to be able to sustain what it is we’re trying to do right now.”

Last month, outgoing Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, proposed raising teacher pay by 10.25% in Virginia’s new two-year budget, all made possible by billions in federal Covid relief funds. Youngkin, a Republican who was sworn in earlier this month, said he wants raises for teachers.

Youngkin is under fire for ending the mask mandate in public schools, and Alexandria and neighboring Fairfax and Arlington Counties have rejected that order.

“Whether (Northam’s proposal) continues to move forward or not, we will still be proposing the actual market rate adjustment and step increases,” Hutchings told the Board.

Should Youngkin accept Northam’s plan, it’s likely that localities throughout the state will try to hit that 10.25% increase over the next two years or else risk losing significant state revenues, ACPS Chief Financial Officer Dominic Turner told the Board.

The fiscal year 2023 $345.8 million combined funds budget is comprised of the $316.2 million ACPS operating fund, $17.6 million from the grants and special projects fund, and a $12 million school nutrition fund.

ACPS will conduct a public hearing on the Combined Funds Budget on Jan. 21, followed by a joint City Council/School Board Subcommittee meeting on Jan. 24. The School Board is expected to pass it (with revisions) on Feb. 18, and then go to City Council for deliberation until it passes the city’s budget in early May.

Image via ACPS

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In a release to parents and staff put out today (Sunday), Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) said everyone in Alexandria schools will still be required to wear a mask despite an order issued by Gov. Glenn Youngkin to the contrary.

The state executive order came as a result of a back and forth between Virginia Democrats and Republicans over requiring masks in schools. Both Arlington and Fairfax County have issued similar messages to parents and staff.

ACPS and other school districts’ legal authority to defy the state order is still in question.

The full release from ACPS is listed below:

Dear ACPS Staff & Families,

We hope you are enjoying the holiday weekend and we look forward to welcoming everyone back to school on Tuesday.

We want to address any questions or concerns about whether masks will continue to be worn in our schools in order to reduce the transmission of COVID-19. Alexandria City Public Schools (ACPS) will continue to abide by the health and safety guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Alexandria Health Department (AHD) and continue to require all individuals to wear masks that cover the nose and mouth in ACPS schools, facilities and buses.

Masks, combined with multiple other ACPS mitigation measures, have been effective in helping to protect the collective health and safety of our students and staff and keep our schools open for in-person learning. This continues to be our commitment as we grapple with the challenges that this pandemic has posed for our schools.

We have begun to receive shipments of KN95 masks for students and staff, and expect deliveries to be completed by Wed., Jan. 19. ACPS will continue to be diligent in exploring all options to place additional orders for the KN95 masks and continue to work with a community partner to secure additional masks through a donation. We have also delivered additional surgical masks to schools for double-masking as an alternative option.

Thank you for all you do to help keep our schools safe and open! For up-to-date information about ACPS’ health and safety guidelines, please visit www.acps.k12.va.us/domain/1607.

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In a letter to incoming Governor Glenn Youngkin, Mayor Justin Wilson outlined some areas of potential cooperation between state and local leadership, despite a wide political gulf.

It’s no secret that there’s nervousness in the all-Democrat Alexandria leadership about the incoming Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin. For the past four years, the city has been “playing with house money” in terms of state support for local projects.

Wilson previously told ALXnow that there were some areas of potential cooperation between the state and the city, and this morning Wilson said on Twitter that he’s sent a letter to Youngkin elaborating on that.

“I know that while we may have different ways of solving the problems and challenges facing our community, we can find common ground to make life better for residents in Alexandria and in communities throughout the Commonwealth,” Wilson wrote.

Wilson outlined six areas where he thinks there’s some overlap in interests.

Holding our electric utilities accountable

Both city leadership and Youngkin have been highly critical of Dominion Energy. Over the last few years, Alexandria has been hit with several major power outages affecting thousands, including one earlier this year that shut down many Del Ray businesses during Art on the Avenue, one of the most pivotal days for local businesses.

When questioned by city leadership in 2020, Dominion representatives said the outages were a fluke — but subsequent outages over the next year gave the lie to Dominion’s explanation. Both Wilson and Youngkin have attacked Dominion in the past, and the utility company donated to an anti-Youngkin PAC during the campaign.

“I filed a petition with the Virginia State Corporation Commission as part of Dominion’s Triennial Review,” Wilson wrote. “My petition requested that Dominion’s allowed profit be reduced to account for the instability in Alexandria’s electrical supply.”

Fully funding the Commonwealth’s criminal justice agencies

Wilson noted that Alexandria taxpayers provide nearly $27 million annually to make up the gap between state funding for the Sheriff’s  Department and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office. The city pays these offices above their state salary to keep the jobs at regionally competitive salaries.

“As you advance your efforts to provide increased funding for public safety, we would urge that you ensure full funding of these agencies, as well as our state courts, Indigent Defense, Court Services Unit and Probation and Parole, including regional scaling for positions funded through a combination of state and local funding,” Wilson wrote.

Here, Youngkin and Alexandria leadership diverge more than with Dominion. Alexandria’s Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office has been relatively progressive and pushed forward on issues like avoiding jail sentences for marijuana possession, but Youngkin has been critical of progressive criminal justice stances.

Modernizing the tax structure

Wilson said Alexandria needs comprehensive tax reform with an eye toward elimination limits currently placed on cities, counties and towns in regard to revenue authority.

“Local government revenue sources need to be diversified,” Wilson wrote, “as we are currently overly reliant on real estate and vehicle personal property taxes and have little to no authority to raise revenue from other sources.”

Wilson said that COVID-19 in particular has limited the city’s revenue sources and has left Alexandria with few options to balance revenue.

Youngkin has called for tax reform, but along the lines of cutting incomes tax, grocery tax and more — not granting localities more authority to levy additional taxes.

Investing in public transit, including WMATA

Wilson noted in the letter that transit is a lifeline for essential workers and the overall economy of Northern Virginia, and is in turn part of supporting the Commonwealth’s economy.

“The jobs and household activities supported by Metrorail and the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) yields the Commonwealth nearly $600 million in revenue each year,” Wilson wrote, “funding that is used to support projects and programs across Virginia.”

Wilson wrote that the state needs to help Alexandria in providing financial support to WMATA. But the Commonwealth’s funding to the Metro is in part provided by the gas tax. Youngkin has vowed to lower gas taxes, which could involve eliminating the gas tax, Axios reported.

Preserving local authority

In the longest of long-shots, Wilson said the city and the state could cooperate to ease back on Dillon Rule restrictions — which only grant localities authorities directly authorized by the state.

“As a Dillon Rule state, local governments in Virginia are significantly restricted in their authority,” Wilson wrote. “An overemphasis on statewide uniformity often hampers the ability for localities like Alexandria to respond nimbly or to innovate in response to emergent challenges unique to our community.”

Youngkin hasn’t spoken about the Dillon Rule — at least not that ALXnow could find in a desperate pre-deadline Google search — but the odds of the Governor-elect ceding authority to localities seems slim.

Either way, the city will find out as a new Alexandria City Council and Youngkin are sworn in next month.

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Alexandria is about to embark on a public relations campaign in response to the 5 cent Plastic Bag Tax, which goes into effect next month.

In a meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 14, the City Council will consider the release of $30,000 from contingent reserves to the city’s Department of Transportation and Environmental Services for outreach on the matter.

The tax goes into effect Jan. 1, 2022. According to the city, the collected taxes will be used for:

  • Environmental Cleanup;
  • Providing education programs designed to reduce environmental waste;
  • Mitigating pollution and litter; or
  • Providing reusable bags to recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC) benefits

“The City’s adopted FY (fiscal year) 2022 operating budget included $30,000 in Non-Departmental Contingent Reserves to develop and produce resources for graphics, advertisements, window clings, and to purchase reusable tote bags for distribution to low-income households,” the city said.

The Virginia General Assembly adopted Sen. Adam Ebbin’s (D-30th) legislation last year allowing localities to impose a bag tax. Neighboring jurisdictions Arlington and Fairfax County also adopted bag taxes.

The $30,000 would be spent in the following way:

  • $5,000 allocated for printing and postage (developing graphics, printing mailers, window cling stickers, notification letters for stakeholders);
  • $9,500 to purchase reusable bags for low-income households and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)/ Women, Infants and Children (WIC) beneficiaries;
  • $8,000 in temporary staffing hours (hours for reusable bag distribution events, conducting street outreach to regulated businesses); and
  • $7,500 allocated for advertisements (social media, local newspapers, and/or bus shelters)
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Morning Notes

Police barricade situation unresolved — “The barricade situation is still unresolved. No other updates at this time.” [Twitter]

Alexandria Film Festival movies available for streaming — “The 15th Alexandria Film Festival draws to a close on Thanksgiving Day, but if you haven’t been able to join it in person yet, fear not–you still have time to unlock and enjoy all 40+films.” [Zebra]

State senators weigh in during council’s legislative package discussion — “Several state officials were in attendance at City Council’s Saturday public hearing, where they weighed in on the 2022 draft legislative package for January’s Virginia General Assembly session.” [Alexandria Times]

Del Ray holiday card lane display to return in 2021 — “Oversized holiday cards will adorn the front yards of homes in Del Ray for the Holiday Card Lane in December.” [Patch]

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Morning Notes

Alexandria School Capacity The Focus Of Proposed Capital Budget — “The latest Capital Improvement Plan proposal includes funding for a newly acquired office building that will become a school.” [Patch]

The Happy Cat Hotel and Spa to open next weekend — “It’s time for dogs to move over, because there’s a new cat in town – or a cat hotel and spa, rather.” [Alexandria Living Magazine]

Council prepares for General Assembly session with new state Republican majority — “With Republican Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin stepping into the governor’s mansion next year and a Republican majority in the Virginia House of Delegates, the tone of Tuesday’s draft legislative package presentation was decidedly different for City Council.” [Alexandria Times]

Alexandria man killed in Arlington crash — “An Alexandria man was killed Wednesday afternoon when the motorcycle he was riding struck an Arlington County school bus in the Nauck area, according to a police release.” [Patch]

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After a few years of somewhat jubilant legislative sessions, the City Council is moving into preparation for a legislative package with a more grim outlook.

The legislative package is an annual list of asks and recommendations from the city to the state government. These sorts of legislative packages are particularly important in Virginia where, as a Dillon Rule state, the authority of the city is limited to only those areas explicitly granted by the state. With Republicans winning control of much of the state government in last week’s election, the all-Democrat City Council’s days of “playing with house money” could be coming to an end.

The biggest project involving state funding in Alexandria is the combined sewer overhaul, a $400 million project mandated by the state that comes with $45 in state funding. The top item on the 2022 legislative priorities list is maintaining funding for that project and offering more flexibility in how the city finances its infrastructure projects.

“The City supports a technical amendment to the budget to ensure funds already appropriated for the [combined sewer] project from the State’s American Rescue Plan Act funds are directed to AlexRenew/The Alexandria Sanitation Authority,” the legislative package draft said. “In addition, the City supports the General Assembly’s commitment to appropriating an additional $40 million in bonds in the next biennial budget to support Alexandria’s legislatively mandated combined sewer overflow project.”

Similarly, the legislative package also expresses support for:

  • Legislation to authorize a comprehensive, statewide workgroup and/or master planning process to consider issues related to inland flooding and recommend actionable short-term and long-term strategies and funding opportunities to prepare for and adapt to inland flooding, including policy changes, priority resiliency projects, funding and financing strategies, and a plan for coordination among state, federal, and local governments.
  • Budget language to direct [Department of Environmental Quality] to convene a work group to review and recommend modifications to current law regarding the limitations on local authority to regulate additions/modifications to single family detached residential structures where land disturbance is less than 2,500 square feet in order to review the land disturbing activity for potential stormwater impacts. (T&ES)

Following up on an area where Mayor Justin Wilson said the city shares some commonalities with Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin, the city is also pushing for more transparency from Dominion Power.

“The City supports legislation to require electric utilities in Virginia, including Dominion Power, to report and publish, on an annual basis, industry-standard electric reliability metrics to the State
Corporation Commission for its system and for individual localities, including Alexandria,” the package said.

Other items included in the legislative package include:

  • Increased funding for childcare support programs, along with adequate support for legal representation in child welfare cases
  • Support for universal and affordable broadband access
  • Stricter high-rise building safety regulations — a topic that became particularly relevant after the condominium collapse in Florida
  • The ability to locally regulate gas-powered leaf blowers
  • Expanded authority to implement automated traffic enforcement solutions, like red-light cameras
  • Reinstated authority for local law enforcement to regulate noise from vehicle exhaust
  • Support for low-to-no fare public transit programs, such as the one Alexandria recently implemented
  • Continued support for and funding to the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Prevention Fund

The legislative package also includes a series of requests, submitted by the Office of housing. for more protections against eviction at a state level, including:

  • Legislation requiring evictions be for cause;
  • Legislation allowing localities to establish a landlord registry;
  • Legislation limiting the percentage of annual rent increases for existing tenants;
  • Legislation requiring landlord notices and communications in languages other than English;
  • Legislation allowing a ten-day appeal period for all evictions even if the tenant is not present;
  • Legislation to allow tenants to file a tenant’s assertion to schedule a hearing on landlord violations of the lease without having to pay rent into court escrow;
  • Legislation eliminating the appeal bond or allowing indigent waivers for low income tenants;
  • Legislation establishing a tenant right to counsel.

The legislative package is scheduled for initial review at the upcoming Saturday, Nov. 13, City Council meeting.

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After two years of euphoria with a Democratic majority in the legislature and a Democrat governor, local Democratic leadership are bracing for the other shoe to drop after Republicans won the governor’s seat and secured a tie in the House of Delegates in the election on Tuesday.

Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson, a Democrat who just won re-election along with the full slate of Democratic candidates in the City Council race, said those last two years have been a boon for the city.

“The thing that has been very good over the last couple of years has been the General Assembly, which has taken a very permissive approach for policymaking at a local level,” Wilson said. “Some of the things we worked on in the last year were things that came out of that permissive authority — regulating firearms on public property, collective bargaining, the framework for the police review panel. Those were all things that came out of state code to do things we couldn’t do before.”

With changes in the state leadership, Wilson said the glory days of the city getting its way in financial and legislative matters could be drawing to a close. The big concern, Wilson said, comes in the budget. Over the last two years, the city received state funding for the combined sewer project, flooding issues, education and more.

“From a financial perspective, [the state’s] been really good to the city,” Wilson said. “Money has to be at the top of the list [of concerns]… financial support and how that’s distributed Not having leadership that is attuned to our issues in Northern Virginia is a concern. Youngkin’s from Northern Virginia so hopefully, he has some empathy for us and can help us, but we’ll see… We’re going into a very different situation right now. It’s very concerning. There are opportunities, though, and I have to be positive about the places where we will work together.”

One of those areas, Wilson said, is pushing for Dominion to invest more heavily in reliability. The city has been plagued with several severe power outages over the last few years, most notably one that derailed the Art on the Avenue Festival — hitting at a time when keeping the lights on couldn’t be more critical for some local businesses.

“The Governor-elect has talked a great deal about Dominion and the fact that further reform is needed there, and we feel that way for sure,” Wilson said. “So hopefully, we’ll have a partner there in those efforts.”

Wilson also said he’s hopeful that bi-partisan comprehensive tax reform could help Alexandria have more independence in how it raises and allocates taxes.

“I’m hopeful for that kind of effort,” Wilson said. “I hope it provides more local control for how we raise revenue. We have to be as optimistic as we can. We’ve had an extraordinarily close relationship with the outgoing administration.”

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(Updated at 4:45 on Nov. 3) Alexandria Vice Mayor Elizabeth Bennett-Parker declared victory in her bid for Virginia’s 45th District House seat on Tuesday, defeating Republican opponent Justin “J.D.” Maddox.

“I’m honored to be the Delegate-elect for the 45th District,” Bennett-Parker told ALXnow. “Thank you to every voter who put their faith in me. I got into this race to continue delivering for our community.”

She continued, “I will always strive to ensure that our Commonwealth is an equitable and inclusive place for all.”

Bennett-Parker said that she did not speak with Maddox, who conceded via an email to supporters on Tuesday night. She won a resounding victory, garnering 73% (25,787 votes) of the votes in the District versus Maddox’s 27% (9,489 votes), with 26 of 32 districts reporting.

“While I am let down by the results of this election, I am encouraged by the strong signal of support for the moderate position that I championed throughout the campaign,” Maddox wrote. “It has become clear to me that voters in District 45, and much more widely, are eager for movement toward the center, and are disheartened by the extreme partisanship they’re hearing from both sides.”

According to city records, there were 24,207 absentee votes filed before election day, or around 25% of the 96,302 active registered voters in Alexandria.

Bennett-Parker defeated incumbent Democrat Mark Levine in the June primary. She began her political career three years ago, winning Alexandria’s vice mayorship in her first-ever campaign for office.

She will be sworn into office in January.

James Cullum and Vernon Miles contributed to this story.

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