The city's economic health became a bit clearer last week during City Council's annual retreat. After discussing the city’s financial outlook and results of the open space and recreation needs assessments, the diagnosis was guarded optimism.
“The financial picture is mixed,” said Assistant City Manager for Finance, Mark Jinks. “Because of the state’s economic condition and the failure of the economy to rebound, we should not expect any new programs to be funded by the city this year and may see some cuts in existing services.”
Last spring, the city absorbed some $700,000 in state funding cuts. The state cuts that Gov. Mark Warner (D) announced earlier this month will result in an additional $1 million in reductions for Alexandria. “It is unrealistic to expect that we will be able to absorb all of these cuts,” Jinks said. “Especially when you consider that the governor or the General Assembly must find an additional $1 billion in cuts for FY ‘04.”
Warner made no cuts in K—12 education funding, but according to Jinks, “The city will probably not be able to fund the school system’s new compensation system, including cost-of-living increases, step increases and the implementation of the new plan, which carries a price tag of around $8 million. We will certainly be able to fund a part of that, but the school system will have to make some decisions about compensation.”
THE GOVERNOR also did not touch direct public safety services. There were cuts to the Compensation Board’s budget, which will impact the sheriff’s administrative staff, the clerk of the court’s staff and the commonwealth’s attorney’s staff. “We will probably ask these agencies to look for savings in their budgets,” Jinks said.
Neither public health nor social services was cut in this round, but the community service boards had funding reductions. “This will affect mental health and substance abuse services,” Jinks said.
On the revenue side, the picture is also mixed. “Our real-estate market continues to be strong, as it is throughout the metropolitan area,” Jinks said. “Houses are continuing to sell above their appraised values, although there is less growth in that market than in previous years. Our income from property taxes will be higher than projected again this year.”
Unemployment continues to be relatively low, and revenue from sales tax is higher than it was at this same time last year. “It is hard to look at trends because we are not far enough into the fiscal year,” Jinks said. “We will have to wait and see what happens.”
MAYOR KERRY J. DONLEY said that citizens should expect this to be a difficult year. “We are going to be faced with some hard choices,” he said. “We may have to decide between cutting operating budgets or postponing capital projects. We would like to see services to citizens remain at their current level but may not be able to achieve that goal. We have capital needs such as a new high school and a new public safety center, and we have asked staff to look at financing options for those two items.”
Councilman William D. Euille agreed. “We haven’t seen a deeper recession but nor have we seen a rebound in the economy. Our real-estate market has shown some signs of softening, but we are ahead of where many jurisdictions are nationally. There are going to be more state cuts, and we will have to wait until December to see what those are going to be,” he said.
<ro>New Public Safety Center Needed
<bt>The Public Safety Center was added to the list of capital projects at last Saturday’s retreat. The proposal is to leave the sheriff, magistrates and the detention center in the current public safety center and find a new site on which a new facility can be built for the police department.
“The reality is that the current facility was too small on the day it opened,” Donley said. “Since the current facility was built, less than 15 years ago, we have seen an increase in public safety programs. For example, we originally planned for 25 computer workstations in the facility and, today, have 250. We need to find an appropriate site and build a facility that will respond to the growth for a decade.”
The price tag for that facility is expected to be around $72 million — $8 million to repair the sinking slab on which the current facility was built and $64 million to purchase land, build a facility and relocate police personnel.
“It is essential that this be done because the current facility simply won’t accommodate the needs of our public safety personnel,” Euille said. “We need a facility that will accommodate changing technology and one that has confidential interview rooms available for our investigators. Our police officers do a wonderful job, and we need to make sure that they have the tools to continue to do so.”
THE OTHER HIGH ticket item is T.C. Williams High School. That project is expected to cost around $75 million. “I have asked the staff to give us some options on financing,” Donley said. “The current public safety facility, for example, was built using some federal dollars. In this time of homeland defense concerns, maybe there are some federal dollars available.”
Euille is interested in the financing options as well. “Some say that this might be the perfect time to go out into the bond market because interest rates are so low,” he said. “While that is true, we want to make sure we do not jeopardize our AAA bond rating.”
The next round of state cuts are expected in December when the governor presents his budget to the General Assembly. Budget discussions begin in earnest at the Council level early next year.
<bt>The city must spend an additional $78 million to keep pace with the current level of public open space and to maintain quality recreation programs.
Rhodeside-Harwell produced the open space report, and Leon Younger and PROS produced the recreation needs assessment report.
“Right now, we have 7.5 acres of public open space per 1,000 population,” said Sandra Whitmore, the director of Parks Recreation and Cultural Activities. “Since 1992, we have added 120 acres of open space and have just kept pace with that 7.5 acres per 1,000. To maintain that level of public open space, we must acquire or find 100 acres of public open space over the next decade.”
The report concluded that this could be done in a variety of ways. “One of the very first things that we must do is establish a conservancy group,” Whitmore said. “This group would consist of private individuals who would work to obtain easements on current open space and establish an open space fund that could be used to purchase open space as it becomes available. This kind of public-private partnership is essential if we are to maintain the level of open space that we now have.”
WHITMORE HOPES to work with such entities as the Virginia Theological Seminary, St. Agnes and St. Stephens School and Episcopal High School. “We would all be very distressed if the green space along Quaker Lane, Braddock Road and Seminary Road was developed,” she said. “We don’t believe that this could happen, but we must make that a certainty.”
The cost of the 100 additional acres of open space is estimated to be around $9 million over the next decade, or about $10,000 per acre. Donley believes that the partnerships with private entities are essential.
“We have worked very cooperatively with Virginia Theological Seminary and others so that the public can utilize the open space that exists on their properties,” he said. “We need to do more to ensure that this is, perhaps, more available to the public and that it is preserved.”
Recreation consultants said that the city needs to spend about $18 million to upgrade and maintain infrastructure. “Like many other localities, we have spent a lot of our money on consumables and have neglected our infrastructure,” Whitmore said.
Consultants believe that there are options for maintaining fields and parks through public-private partnerships as well. “Right now, Alexandria Little League helps with the fields,” Whitmore said. “We need to work with the Alexandria Soccer Association and the new lacrosse league to see how that partnership can be enhanced.”
AS FOR NEW FACILITIES, consultants saw a need for a small neighborhood center in the west end. “If we are going to look at another recreation center in the west end, we should look at putting it at Tucker Elementary School,” Donley said. “That would seem to make the most sense.”
There is also a need for a multigenerational recreation facility. “The day when neighborhood recreation centers offered everything is gone,” Whitmore said. “That was a 1960s or 1970s concept. We now need to look at large facilities that have everything for everybody — seniors, teens, children and all ethnic groups.”
Consultants identified two locations for this multigenerational center: Ben Brenman Park or Chinquapin.
“Chinquapin clearly makes the most sense because it is in the center of the city and already contains many programs for a variety of ages,” Euille said.
Donley agreed. “It isn’t logical to fight for open space, obtain a beautiful park such as we have with Ben Brenman Park and then build a building on it,” he said. “We need to look at Chinquapin, especially in light of the fact that we are designing a new high school and could make this a facility that accommodates the needs of our children, young adults and seniors.”
Euille agreed. “What the mayor says makes great sense,” he said. “I will fight to look at expanding Chinquapin before we build anything at Ben Brenman Park.”
The cost, over the next decade, for all of the recreation needs is around $78 million.