Reality TV, Alexandria Style
Members of City Council are public figures, often recognized in restaurants or street corners. But they are also television stars, playing leading roles on Alexandria’s public-access channel. According to Comcast’s annual report, which was presented to the council on Tuesday, television viewers prefer City Council meetings to School Board meetings.
“I don’t think there’s a telegenic elected official in Alexandria,” said School Board Vice Chairwoman Sally Ann Baynard. “We conduct serious business, so it must be excruciatingly dull to watch on television. Maybe people watch us late at night for the soporific effect.”
In June and July, Q7 Broadband Market Research interviewed 820 of the 49,710 Alexandria cable subscribers. About half of the respondents said that they were aware that Comcast offered the channel. Of that group, 75 percent said that they had watched a City Council meeting and 54 percent said they had watched a School Board meeting.
“Please note that 26 percent of the total survey respondents reported having children enrolled in the Alexandria public school system,” wrote City Manager Jim Hartmann. “Last year, 58.9 percent had watched a School Board meeting with only 16.3 percent of the total survey respondents having children enrolled in the Alexandria public school system.”
About 63 percent of the city’s residents and businesses subscribe to Comcast, and the city receives a $1 million yearly franchise fee from the cable provider. The annual report also revealed that Comcast was fined $800 by the city for not answering its telephones within 30 seconds, a stipulation which is defined in city code.
The Rising Cost of Public Safety
Increasing security demands have changed Alexandria in many ways, increasing readiness and straining budgets. One of the costs of the new way of doing business is the rising demand for public safety officials — and the City Council is considering raising the pay scale of for employees of the Police Department, Fire Department and Sheriff’s Office.
“If we don’t do something, we’re going to start losing qualified people,” said City Council member Rob Krupicka. “Other jurisdictions are growing faster and paying more.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, City Council considered a new plan to bring Alexandria salaries more in line with neighboring jurisdictions. The plan would use a benchmark job analysis to pay city public safety employees at 100 percent of the average midpoint salary of five jurisdictions: Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery, Prince George’s and Prince William counties.
“Public safety is extremely competitive among jurisdictions in the Washington region,” wrote City Manger Jim Hartmann. “We recognize the city’s fiscal constraints and will work on a multi-year approach to addressing these issues.”
The City Council voted to increase the average public safety employee’s salary by 5.5 percent. The Office of Management and Budget estimates that enacting the raise this year would cost the city $3.1 million, but city officials suspect more will need to be done to maintain qualified officials.
“Maybe we need to look more broadly than just at salaries,” said City Council member Andrew Macdonald. “Maybe we need to look at affordable housing also.”
Speaking of Salaries …
The council voted to kill a plan to give City Council members a raise. The plan had received a chilly reception at the last meeting, with Councilman Andrew Macdonald supporting a base salary increase and City Manager Jim Hartmann offering a plan to offer council members a Cost of Living Adjustment, known as a “COLA.”
“A COLA it totally inappropriate way to deal with this,” Macdonald said. “I think it’s audacious to think that this is a part time job. It’s not.”
Council members currently receive a $27,500 annual salary. The mayor receives a $30,500 salary. Macdonald wanted to see council salaries raised to $40,000.
“I doubt there’s a lot of support for this idea,” he admitted.
In the end, the City Council voted against giving itself any raise — even a cost-of-living adjustment.
“I don’t think we want full-time City Council members who would interfere with the city manger,” said Councilman Rob Krupicka.
Vice Mayor Del Pepper agreed that now was not the time to give elected officials a raise.
“I think it’s totally inappropriate,” she said. “It sends the wrong message when we are trying to count pennies.”