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Council Grapples with How to Spend Grant Money

What to do with $400,000. That was the dilemma members of the City Council grappled with as they discussed the federal economic development grant the city was awarded.

The grant was just one of several items on Council's agenda Tuesday. The docket appeared to be relatively light, but Council did not adjourn until after midnight because of a two-hour executive session at the end of the evening.

"I really hope we do a little more than just plan with this money," said Councilman Bill Euille. "I think that our citizens and our businesses want to see some action. Since this money has relatively few conditions, I would like to see us use it for some immediate solutions to problems that we have identified."

Eileen Fogarty, director of planning and zoning, who will receive $100,000 of the federal funds, assured Euille that this would be the case. “By planning, we mean that we intend to work with businesses to develop marketing strategies and move our previous planning efforts in Upper Potomac West, on Mount Vernon Avenue and on King Street ahead,” Fogarty said.

Councilwoman Claire Eberwein had some reservations about the $60,000 that will be used for regional tourism promotion. “The region has not come up with any kind of a comprehensive plan for promoting tourism, so I would hate to see us pay this $60,000 to consultants,” Eberwein said. “I would rather see it used here in the city.”

Councilman David Speck disagreed. “It is very important for us to work with the other jurisdictions in the region because, as we have found out, tourism is very important to all of us,” he said.

Mayor Kerry J. Donley agreed. “This is just one of the ways that we can show our willingness to work on regional problems in a cooperative manner,” he said. “Every jurisdiction in the region will receive some of this money that has been earmarked to assist communities that were impacted by Sept. 11, and all of us have agreed to set aside a portion of the funds to promote the entire region.”

LEGISLATIVE ISSUES

Donley asked Council to discuss whether to support a transportation-only increase in the sales tax. “There are lots of different bills floating around on this issue,” said Bernard Caton, the city’s legislative director. “Some would increase the sales tax by a penny statewide and would use half of the money to fund education and the other half to fund transportation projects. There is another bill that would use all of the money just for transportation. Also, there is the issue of how the money would be allocated statewide.”

One of the bills would allocate the education funds from any increase in sales tax by using point-of-sale, while another would allocate it to jurisdictions by school-age population. Since Alexandria has only a relatively small school-age population, the city would get only about $3.8 million a year under this formula. If point-of-sale were used to determine each jurisdiction’s allocation, Alexandria would receive an additional $10 million a year.

“I think that the most important issue is the method of allocating the funds,” Donley said. “I think we should stand firm on using point-of-sale as opposed to school-age population. We have not taken a position yet on whether to support a transportation-only increase in the sales tax, and I’m not sure we have to until we see what happens to some of these bills.”

Councilwoman Joyce Woodson encouraged compromise. “While I think it is important to support both education and transportation funding, I think we need to be open to compromise,” Woodson said.

Caton was able to inform Council that the city’s proposed hate-crimes legislation failed in committee and that the proposed local recordation tax on real estate that would have been used to purchase or retain open space had been removed from the charter bill.

“I don’t think that this is any surprise,” Speck said, referring to the recordation tax. “However, it is being looked at in the context of a study, and I think that is as good as we could have hoped for.”

FINANCIAL UPDATE

Council received the December financial report that projects the city will have a $4 to $5 million shortfall this fiscal year. “We really need to wait for another month or two to see how things are going to be for the rest of the year,” said Mark Jinks, assistant city manager for finance. “When we come to you with our proposed budget in March, we should have a much better idea of how the hotels are doing and of just what is happening with the state’s finances. Gov. Warner has indicated that there are going to be even deeper cuts than Gov. Gilmore proposed, and we haven’t had an opportunity to look at that yet.”

NEW DASH FACILITY

Council also agreed to hold a public hearing on purchasing land for a new DASH facility. The cost will be between $4 million and $5 million. The public hearing will be held on Jan. 26, beginning at 9:30 a.m. Anyone who wants to speak on this or any other issue that is on the docket can call the clerk’s office at 703-838-4500 or simply sign up on the day of the hearing.

CWLA

Meg O’Reagan, the city’s director of the Department of Social Services, gave an update on implementing the Child Welfare League of America's recommendations that arose from the Katelyn Frazier case. She said there was a team of regional social-service supervisors who review cases on a monthly basis; there is a “new eyes” policy requiring an independent review of any injury that occurs to a child who is in foster care, and staffing levels have been increased so that social workers handle fewer cases. These additional personnel will cost about a quarter of a million dollars a year.

“We believe that we have a team in place that is moving forward with all of the recommendations,” O’Reagan said. “We have trained our own staff and are engaged in an extensive public education process. We are working closely with our community advisory board and with our public and private partners.”