Alexandria Mayor Kerry J. Donley painted a mixed economic picture and highlighted some of the challenges ahead in his annual State of the City address on Feb. 28. He also took the opportunity to formally announce that he is not running for reelection in 2003.
The event was hosted by the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by Virginia Commerce Bank. More than 300 people attended the early morning breakfast to listen to the mayor.
Ken Moore, the Chamber’s ‘s president was on hand, saying, “Understanding the challenges and opportunities facing the city of Alexandria is important for the citizens of the community to hear. The high attendance at this event each year proves the keen level of interest in hearing the mayor’s perspective and the important issues the city will address in the coming months. At the same time, it gives the Chamber an opportunity to express our gratitude to the mayor and City Council for their leadership following the events of Sept. 11.”
Donley began by reflecting on the changes since Sept. 11.
“Who among us could have imagined the devastation of the cowardly acts of Sept. 11? Who among us could have imagined the affect that the sudden loss of tourism would have on our local economy? Who among us could have imagined the budget fiasco at the state level and the deficit of $3.8 billion that today threatens localities across Virginia while our local needs go unmet? And who among us could have imagined that the eyes of the world would be focused on Alexandria as the site of justice to those who threaten our way of life as well as peace throughout the world,” Donley asked.
“In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks, our perspective has changed, and we have all realized the most important things in our lives are our families, our friends, our neighbors and our country,” Donley said. “We also saw firsthand how local government acts in times of crisis. The way that the city responded to Sept. 11 is commendable. The fire and police departments were on the front lines from the beginning, and citizens and businesses were also quick to act. Alexandria citizens have come to a lasting realization of a new sense of priorities, a new sense of patriotism, and a new appreciation for the services of local government, particularly the agencies responsible for public safety — the first responders in times of crisis.”
Donley also spoke about the strength of the city’s economy. “Alexandria’s unemployment at year’s end was only 3.2 percent compared to 3.6 percent statewide and 5.6 percent nationwide,” the mayor said. “Retail sales in the fourth quarter were up one percent from the same quarter the previous year. In fact, retail sales in December — our largest month for sales — increased four percent over December, 2000.”
Donley attributed this recovery to the city’s economic health prior to Sept. 11. “Last June, the city again received strong AAA-AAA ratings from both the major bond rating agencies in recognition of the City Council’s discipline and consistency in budget and fiscal matters. The city’s employment base has sustained a multi-year growth in technology, trade associations and tourism,” Donley said. “We broadened the tax base, and tax rates have thus far been held to a reasonable level. The City Council has not solely looked to economic development efforts to sustain our city, because we have long worked to make our city a place where people not only work but live and play as well. I am proud to report that Alexandria has continued to receive recognition for the quality of life we maintain.”
As part of the emphasis on quality of life in the city, Donley praised the public school system. “Eighty one percent of last year’s graduates of T. C. Williams High School went on to colleges and universities. Five city public schools are fully accredited according to the state’s rigorous standards of learning. To accommodate increasing student enrollment, now standing at about 11,100, major construction and renovation projects are underway at our two middle schools. Diversity in our schools is an asset to the community and to our students’ education,” Donley said.
The mayor highlighted efforts that will expand the police and fire departments so that they are better able to provide security and respond to all emergencies. He also looked at transportation issues that will confront the city over the next few years. These included the Woodrow Wilson Bridge project and a number of transportation studies that are being undertaken with federal funds. “Like all Virginia localities, Alexandria will be adversely affected by cutbacks in the State of Virginia six-year plan. We stand to lose a lot of state transportation funding, both in terms of capital and operating assistance. In plain and simple terms, the politics of the past have now been reconciled with the reality of the present, and projects in the six-year plan simply must be reduced. The City Council will have to make hard decisions about our transportation priorities as we reconsider our projects in light of reduced state resources,” Donley said.
He reemphasized Council’s support for a referendum to raise the sales tax to support transportation and education programs. “If the state is not willing to help Northern Virginia meet its needs, let us at least allow our citizens to determine their own future through referendum. I trust the voters of Northern Virginia, and I hope the majority of the General Assembly will support this initiative,” Donley said.
As to the future, Donley was cautious. “Although we do not know the final numbers, we can expect to see up to $5 million in state cuts in operating funds alone,” he said. “Today, state cutbacks represent the biggest threat to Alexandria’s ability to craft a responsive budget. While we struggle to balance reduced state revenue and increased needs, this year I believe we must take a hard look at our real estate tax rate with a goal of reducing this rate in order to maintain reasonable tax burdens and keep Alexandria affordable to our residents. I am confident that the City Council will forge a tight budget that provides for the needs of all Alexanndrians and recognizes the tax burdens faced by our citizens and their businesses.”
“We must look beyond the parochial issues and keep in mind that decisions we make today will define the city for the next 25 years. Major public facilities must be planned for the entire community, and that includes our children. I am concerned that we might forget our young people as we plan our public infrastructure and I call on all Alexandrians to renew this city’s commitment to our youth and to ensure that they have a place in Alexandria for decades to come,” Donley said.
In closing, Donley announced that he will not be seeking reelection in 2003. “While this has not been a closely kept secret, I want to put an end to any remaining speculation,” Donley said. “As I finish this term in office, I will be completing 15 years of public service, nearly half those as mayor. My time in office has been extremely rewarding and I believe I have made a positive contribution to the vitality of Alexandria. However, the time has come for me to spend more time with my family and look for other ways to serve the city, which I love. This is not a retirement but rather an opportunity to renew my energies and to reassess how I might best use my abilities to strengthen our community,” he said.