The Alexandria City Council's first meeting of the New Year was short and contained very little controversy.
Council made two decisions regarding the Alexandria Redevelopment and Housing Authority. They agreed to release $1.1 million from the Housing Trust Fund for the purpose of procuring land at 325 S. Whiting Street. This property is one of the locations on which public housing will be built to replace units at The Berg. ARHA has been negotiating with the owner of the property but has been unable to reach an agreement on a purchase price.
The Housing Authority has begun proceedings to take the property by imminent domain. Councilman William D. Euille pulled the item from the consent calendar at the Jan. 14, Council meeting.
"I pulled this item because it concerns the expenditure of taxpayer dollars," Euille said. "Any time that we spend tax dollars, I believe that we should have a discussion about it. Also, this is not an inconsequential amount of money and the public should know how we are spending it."
Mark Jinks, the assistant city manager for finance, explained that if all of the money is not needed, it will be returned to the Housing Trust Fund. "This is part of the $3.5 million that Council approved for The Berg project," Jinks said. "Two million will come from the Housing Trust Fund and $1.5 million will come from the general fund."
Councilwoman Joyce Woodson asked about the likelihood of any of the money actually being returned to the Housing Trust Fund. "I just don't want the general public to think that this is really a possibility if it is not," she said. "Isn't it more likely that this project will require even more funding than we have currently allocated?"
Jinks agreed that this was the case. "It all depends on the tax credits," he said. "We don't know whether we are going to get a rate of four percent or nine percent but it is likely that all of the money that has been allocated will be needed."
Council also appointed two members to the ARHA Board — Antoine Cobb, who was reappointed and Leslie Hagen who was appointed to replace Judy Celtz who did not reapply for the position. Council took this action despite a request from the ARHA Board chairman, A. Melvin Miller, to take no action and simply allow Celtz and Cobb to continue to serve until ARHA completes contract negotiations related to The Berg project.
"I thought they didn't want us to do anything," Woodson said.
Mayor Kerry J. Donley explained. "We did receive a memorandum from Mr. Miller but we also received correspondence from at least two other members of the ARHA Board indicating that they disagreed with Mr. Miller and that the matter had not been discussed by the Board," he said. "Also, I spoke with a number of members of Council before tonight's meeting and the feeling was that we should go ahead and make the appointments."
THE CITY'S legislative director, Bernard Caton, gave an update on what's happening at the Virginia General Assembly. "The General Assembly has only been in session for about a week so there has been very little action on bills," he said. "For the most part, they are simply being introduced at this point."
Caton did discuss two bills that would cap the real estate tax rate that localities can assess. "These bills would limit the amount that localities could increase the real estate tax rate to five percent," he said. "Two of them have failed in subcommittee and are now going on to their respective committees for a vote. While I do not expect them to pass in committee, it is something that we will watch."
Donley expressed his outrage at the bills. "This is totally hypocritical," he said. "These people, who have never served one minute in local government want to dictate to us how we find revenue to fund essential services and at the same time they are decreasing the level of funding that we are receiving from the state. How can they begin to tell us what to do when their own financial house is in such a mess? I don't believe that they have any idea what we do or how we are going to pay for public education and public safety."
Woodson, too, expressed dismay. "I think you are being too kind," she said. "I think they know exactly what they are doing. This is just another example of the type of micromanagement that we see all of the time."
Caton returns from Richmond to brief Council's legislative committee every Friday. Council discusses these updates at every legislative meeting while the General Assembly is in session.
VICE MAYOR William Cleveland inquired about a report on this year's real estate assessments. "I have seen that Arlington and Fairfax have released their rates and Fairfax's have gone up by about 14 percent," he said. "I was wondering if we know how much ours are going to go up."
Jinks said that the assessments are still being computed. "They will be mailed some time in February," he said. "At that point, Council will receive a report. However, as I said at the retreat, I believe that the rates will increase by around 14 percent or more."
Councilwoman Redella S. "Del" Pepper mentioned an article in The Wall Street Journal that talked about housing costs. "It mentioned Alexandria," she said. "Specifically, the 22301 zip code. Apparently, appraised values of homes in this zip code have increased by 23 percent since 2001. I guess that tells us that our real estate assessments are definitely going to go up."
Richard Baier, the director of the department of Transportation and Environmental Services gave his monthly report on the King Street overpass. "We have heard from CSX and they said that they will complete the work in the spring," he said.
Baier said that his staff has found a solution to the problem of dripping water from the walls of the bridge. The cost is approximately $1,400.
"In a budget of $450 million, why can't we just find the $1,400 and install the drain," asked Councilman David G. Speck. "That makes more sense than wasting a lobbying chit with CSX."
Donley agreed. "Just find the money and do it," he said.
"I guess my work here is done," Speck said. "We have finally solved the problem of the King Street overpass."
The drain will be installed when the weather permits.
CITY MANAGER Philip Sunderland presented Council with copies of the 2002 annual report. "I'm sorry it's so late but we will do better this year," he said. "We will have copies mailed to everyone in the city by the end of the week."
The city's annual report is normally produced in the fall and Council holds a public hearing to allow the public to comment on the document. They will not hold that public hearing this year. "We really haven't gotten many comments in the past so it isn't necessary," Donley said.
Sunderland encouraged members of the public who wish to comment on the report to contact his office or the office of citizens' assistance.