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Solving '04 Problems in '05.

New Year, Old Stories

As the fireworks blazed from the George Washington Masonic Temple, Alexandrians began 2005 but many of the issues confronting them are from 2004.

The city began 2004 mourning the murder of Nancy Dunning, wife of Alexandria sheriff James Dunning and a vital part of the Del Ray community. They begin 2005 still looking for answers to her murder.

"It is a very active investigation and we still believe that there is someone out there with information that could lead to an arrest in this case," said Amy Bertsch, a spokesperson for the Alexandria Police Department. Bertsch would not comment on any involvement that a federal grand jury might have in the case.

In January, 2004, the Virginia General Assembly opened one of its most contentious sessions in years. The 60-day session lasted for 117 days before the Commonwealth had a budget. "As far as the budget is concerned, 2005 has to be better than 2004," said Del. Brian Moran (D-46). "This year we have a budget surplus so the only real discussion is how to spend it. The reaction to the governor's proposed budget is hopeful. He is proposing additional funds for transportation; is going to put more money into the Rainy Day Fund and a few other additions but no new programs."

What else is likely to be on the General Assembly's agenda this year? "There is a bill supporting a new license plate in support of traditional marriage so that issue is going to remain on the fringes," Moran said. "Also, there will be some discussion about changing the law to allow a governor to succeed himself. I haven't really heard of anything that would cause a major controversy but the session hasn't begun yet." It begins on Jan. 12.

ALEXANDRIA WILL have a new city manager, someone who has not lived in the city for decades. "Jim Hartmann was a unanimous choice for city manager and we are all looking forward to working with him," said Mayor William D. Euille.

One of the first items on Hartmann's to-do list is preparing a city budget to present to the council in March. Euille is already talking about lowering the real estate tax rate once again. Last year, council lowered it by four cents and it is below $1 per $100 of assessed value for the first time in many years. Real estate assessments are expected to rise by between 15 and 20 percent once again this year.

"We have to look at giving our homeowners some tax relief once again," Euille said. "We will wait for the budget, of course, but I would hope that we could lower the rate by at least as much as we did last year."

Springtime school activities such as the prom and graduation were eclipsed by the arrest of school superintendent Rebecca L. Perry for driving while intoxicated. She pled guilty, paid a fine, contributed to the alcohol-free all night graduation party, had her contract shortened by a year and, in November, had her contract lengthened by three years and got a raise. While the School Board has made a decision about Perry's future, she must manage a T. C. Williams High School construction project that is already 25 percent over budget before it begins. Also, demolition of the career wing, set to be done while students were on winter break, did not happen, prompting Euille to ask T. C. project manager, Mark Burke, why?

"The School Board has made a decision about the superintendent and it's time to move on," Euille said. "As to T. C. Williams, we are watching that project very carefully. We have made it clear that, because of our own capital needs, the city can only contribute the $80.5 million we have pledged to this project. The rest of the money will have to come from their own budget."

In addition to T. C., four of the city's elementary schools failed to meet the federal No Child Left Behind guidelines, meaning that parents of children in those schools had the option to move those children to other passing schools. Most parents chose not to exercise that option this year but test scores in the spring of 2005 will determine what happens next year.

THE SCHOOL COMMUNITY faced the tragic loss of two young people in 2004: John Steve Catillo drowned in the Potomac in June while coaching in the novice crew program and Laura Lynam was killed in a car accident in October while on her way to a crew regatta. The 17-year-old who was driving the SUV in which Laura was a passenger is in court in Fairfax County this week, facing reckless driving charges.

Mirant's Potomac River power plant was at the forefront of news in Alexandria in 2004 and will remain there in 2005. Council has passed legislation revoking the special use permits under which the plant and its office facility have been operating since 1989 and have declared coal-fired power plants to be non-conforming uses in the city. Del. Marian Van Landingham will re-introduce legislation at the state level which will seriously hamper the plant's ability to continue to function.

"Another member of the delegation will carry that bill for me this year and we hope that it will meet with more success," Van Landingham said. She will not attend the General Assembly session this year because of her need to undergo intensive chemotherapy.

Even with a consent decree that forces Mirant to change the way in which the plant operates, city legislation that should cause its closure and pending state legislation that would place another nail in its proverbial coffin, do not expect the old plant to go away quietly. Mirant has many years over which it can amortize the value of the facility and can come to council during that time and ask for extensions or reapply for special use permits. Also, the probability of court action against the city from Mirant is high. Even if everything went according to the city's wishes, the plant would likely not close until some time after 2010.

ON THE DEVELOPMENT front, it's Potomac Yard, Potomac Yard, Potomac Yard. The southernmost parcel of land in The Yard has been purchased and is going through the planning process. The new owners would like to move the process along more swiftly than was originally thought. They have proposed paying for the entire cost of straightening the Monroe Avenue bridge, a condition that the council placed in the Yard's development special use permit in 2003.

"If we can come to some agreement, we could begin work on the infrastructure as soon as this summer," said Duncan Blair, an attorney for the new owners.

There are some proposed changes to the existing plan but Euille has warned about the extent of those changes. "While we are going to allow some tweaking of the plan, we will not support wholesale changes," he said. Any substantive changes will have to come to the Planning Commission and then to Council, with public hearings before both bodies. There is going to be widespread community interest in any new proposal.

Like 2004, 2005 will have its own elections. Van Landingham's announcement that she will not seek a 13th term in the General Assembly has prompted interest by many would-be legislators. As many as eight Democrats have already expressed interest and the Republicans are bound to have a candidate or candidates. With the statewide gubernatorial and attorney general races being contested, expect to see a dual primary in Alexandria for the first time in many years.

"I would support a primary as opposed to a convention because I think it gives voters a better opportunity to get to know the candidates," said Kerry Donley, the chair of Virginia's Democratic Party. That primary would be held on June 14.

In addition to members of the House of Delegates, the governor, the lt. governor and the attorney general, Alexandrians will select a Commonwealth's Attorney and a sheriff. Current Commonwealth's Attorney, S. Randolph Sengel is not likely to have any opposition. Two candidates have already declared their candidacy for sheriff, former vice mayor Bill Cleveland, a Republican, and detective Dana Lawhorne, a Democrat. Others may emerge.