2003 saw floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, state and national budget deficits, a war in Iraq, terror threats and little improvement in the economic picture for the region. But what's ahead for 2004?
"Our economic picture looks pretty good for 2004," said Mayor William D. Euille. "While we can't expect much support from the state, we will have a balanced budget in Alexandria and may even be able to offer some additional tax relief for our residents. We cut the property tax rate last year and would like to do so again this year. That is a goal, however, and we will have to take a hard look at needs before we make that decision."
And those capital costs are growing.
"We will see construction of a new high school begin this year," Euille said. "We are committed to that new school but we must monitor the cost carefully. We are forming a task force to provide oversight to the entire project. That way, we will know if something goes wrong and we will know quickly. This project is important but we must see that it is done correctly and that means on budget and on time."
That task force will consist of two members of City Council, two members of the School Board and members of the school system and city staff. The Planning Commission will review the plans for the new school this week and Council will hold a public hearing on the project on Jan. 24.
A new public safety center is also being planned. The cost of this project is estimated to be around $65 million. This project is in the study phase at this time but is expected to proceed this year.
Construction projects will abound throughout the city in 2004, especially in the Eisenhower Valley. "Development of the PTO buildings is on schedule and the rest of Carlyle is scheduled to be developed in earnest this year," said Eileen Fogarty, the city's director of Planning. "The hotel will be built and the other blocks are being developed.
"Also, other projects will be coming on line in Eisenhower East, pursuant to our planning process," she said.
Eisenhower West is another issue, however. "The Council is beginning to look at a similar planning process for Eisenhower West as was used in Eisenhower East," Fogarty said. "Over the next few months, they will be prioritizing where we go next."
THAT COULD BE Eisenhower West, Braddock Road, Duke Street or the waterfront. "Over the next few years we will be looking at the entire city in terms of the master plan and the small area plans," Fogarty said. "It's a matter of what Council decides to do next."
As for Potomac Yard, Fogart said, "Potomac Greens is coming along, so you will see some development there."
As for the rest of the property, " It's been four years since we approved the plan and I would hope to see more movement toward developing that property," Euille said.
There are plans to promote the city's cultural activities as well. "We are designating 2004 as the year to promote the arts in Alexandria," Euille said. "I mean everything from the artists at the Torpedo Factory to music and dance. We had our first city-wide arts festival this year and are going to do that again in 2004.
"Also, we are going to suggest combining some of the small ethnic festivals into one large festival that celebrates all of the ethnic communities in Alexandria. The small festivals have not been very well attended and we hope, by combining them into a larger well promoted city event, we can increase attendance and support all of our diversity," Euille said.
ANOTHER INITIATIVE, Read Alexandria, will begin this spring. "We want to encourage everyone in the city to read more," Euille said. "Expect to see events throughout the city, at schools, at libraries, at Market Square, everywhere. We are going to encourage everyone to read something this year."
City Council began a strategic planning and team-building process at a retreat in November. That process will continue. "The next step is to hold a community meeting or forum that will last for at least one day and maybe for two days," Euille said. "We want to tell the community about our goals that came out of our own retreat and get them involved in finalizing the goals and vision that will direct our course for the next five to ten to even 20 years. Council's vision was just the beginning of the process. It is the citizens‚ vision that will set the course," Euille said.
AT THE STATE LEVEL, budget deficits continue. "Most of our focus will be on passing a budget that is fiscally and morally responsible," said Delegate Marian Van Landingham (D-45). "We continue to try and dig ourselves out of the hole that previous administrations got us into, while funding essential programs at reasonable levels."
Virginia Governor Mark Warner (D) has proposed a number of initiatives that will make that a bit easier.
"While some of his tax initiatives are going to get a lot of debate, they will either pass or those who vote against them will have to make cuts in education and other funding," Van Landingham said. "That is going to be very difficult to sell considering that we have under funded education for the past several years and are not keeping pace with sister states such as North Carolina in terms of putting money into higher education."
The cigarette tax is likely to be increased as is the gasoline tax. "The increase in the sales tax that the governor is proposing would give us the most revenue and is the most controversial," Van Landingham said. "I believe that the cigarette tax will probably be increased as may the gasoline tax."
But there will be a budget. "This is our biannual budget," Van Landingham said. "This isn't just a continuation so we will be there until something is passed. It is going to be an interesting legislative session."
ON THE NATIONAL FRONT, "We have got to find a way back into the international community," said US Representative James P. Moran (D-8). "We managed to isolate ourselves over the war in Iraq and now we have to repair those relationships.
"Also, there's the matter of paying the bill for the war and for the reconstruction of two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. Are we to ignore the needs of our own citizens here at home to deal with Iraq and Afghanistan? We are going to continue to face budget deficits and look for ways to fund education and the safety net programs.
"We have the No Child Left Behind Act and no money to fund its mandates. We cannot expect state and local governments to pay for more and more programs when they have their own economic crises," Moran said.
Expect to see debate on civil unions and on the use of the "morning after" birth control pill. "There are going to be discussions on both of these issues," Moran said. "We could see the Congress trying to define tolerance in our country."