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Council Notebook

Democracy in Alexandria

A seven-hour public hearing at City Hall offered speeches and dialogue, extended discussions and some tears. Council members heard from citizens who filled out a speaker's form, considered recommendations from the Planning Commission and heard from disgruntled citizens who wanted to be heard.

When a discussion of funding historic preservation became an extended back-and-forth between City Council members, Mayor Bill Euille jumped in, reminding council members that the public hearing was an opportunity to listen more than speak.

"We're not here to debate this," he said. "We're here to listen to the citizens."

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Ghost of the Winkler Portfolio

Affordable housing, that giant ghost haunting the city's autumn season, kept appearing in the City Council's chamber during Saturday's public hearing. There, at City Hall, specters of "affordable housing," "workforce housing" and "condo conversion" levitated in the room. The curtains were drawn, preventing sunlight from being shed on the situation. Council members wandered in the darkness, searching for ways to keep Alexandria affordable.

The full moon that night made it dangerous to be out at night on the west side. That's where 4,000 rental units owned by the Mark Winkler Co. are up for sale. The sale is expected to close by January, so the future is uncertain for many west-side residents.

"The impending sale of the Winkler Portfolio should remind us that we need a long-term plan, we need a strategy," said Nancy Carson, founder of affordable housing advocacy group Housing Action. "We need to move from projects to a program."

Carson reported that Housing Action had been working with city staff to create an action plan for finding a solution to the city's recurring nightmares over affordable housing. Meanwhile, council members added $7.1 million to a $15 million bond for affordable housing — allocating a total of $22.1 million for the "acquisition, construction, remodeling and repairing of affordable housing and acquisition of necessary land and equipment."

The affordable housing money would come from a $71 million bond that will fund several projects — and some money for schools or parks could be transferred to an affordable housing project if an opportunity presented itself. Council members have not yet decided what to do with the money, and some city leaders are speculating about the possibility of purchasing Hunting Towers or some of the west-side Winkler Portfolio properties.

"I'm concerned that it could go both ways though, like the transportation fund in the General Assembly," said Councilwoman Joyce Woodson. "But I don't think that we are going to be able to find a Winkler property that's less than $60 million."

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Future Unclear for Hunting Creek Residents

Ardith Campbell Dentzer, who represents tenants at Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace, again appeared before City Council members to advocate for her residents — renters of Hunting Towers and Hunting Terrace. People who live there are growing increasingly concerned about being evicted when the Virginia Department of Transportation sells their buildings — with a closing deadline of March 1 for developers who have expressed an interest to City Hall.

"We will not be moved," Dentzer told council members, adding that the ongoing uneasiness created by their situation has been physically draining. "This stress has made our health even worse — I'm at the end of my rope, really."

When telling council members about an elderly resident at Hunting Towers who is battling cancer, she became overcome with emotion and had to stop speaking. For a moment, the council chamber was filled with silence.

Nobody knows what will happen to these people if they are evicted. A potential developer could redevelop the area into high-price apartments or $1 million condominiums, and Dentzer has become a full-time activist to advocate on their behalf. Councilman Andrew Macdonald told Dentzer that the city has to do something to help these people — especially the elderly residents who are already struggling with health aliments and financial problems.

"They have been part of our community for a long, long time," Macdonald said. "I don't know how to do it, but we've got to do something."

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Dark Side of Old Town

Pat Troy, the Irish restaurant owner who has launched a Republican candidacy for City Council next year, came to City Hall with a complaint about streetlights in Old Town. He said that too many streetlights are not lit up at night, creating a blanket of darkness over the city.

"During the day, we have a vibrant city. At night, we have a dark hole," said Troy. "Four streetlights are out in the 500 block of King Street."

Troy commented that some of the bulbs seem to be too dim, and that it's difficult to get around at 2 a.m. When he said that, Vice Mayor Del Pepper piped in: "What are you doing out at 2 a.m.?"

"I have a business to run to make and pay taxes to our city. So I can't go to bed early," said Troy, adding that he hoped council members were in bed at that time.

Mayor Bill Euille chuckled and agreed that the streets of Alexandria are too dark, and that the city should work harder to fix streetlights that aren't working.

"It looks like a dungeon at night," Euille said, adding that he recently counted five lights that were burnt out in a two-block area. "Maybe my colleagues and I can stand outside with candles at night."

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PTA Members Request School Money

Sheryl Gorsuch, president of the Alexandria PTA Council, was one of many speakers who asked City Council members to fully fund the schools' budgets. Several PTA organizations from across the city spoke at the hearing, calling for preserving small class sizes, increasing teacher pay and working to raise test scores.

Gorsuch said that expectations for schools are rising, with increasing target scores for federal standards and Virginia accreditation. Last year, "the number of students expected to achieve each year rises until Spring 2014 when 100 percent of students will be expected to pass," Gorsuch said, referring to the target for perfect future participation required under No Child Left Behind. "Achieving these goals requires additional spending."

She said the increasing cost of the Alexandria City Public School system was driven by many factors, including paying for the unfunded mandates and penalties of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act.

Spending on schools accounts for about 33 percent of the city's total expenditures. Since 2000 — shortly before the federal act was passed by Congress — school enrollment has declined by about 600 students while the cost to city taxpayers has risen by about $40 million.

"This is not the time to consider cuts to the schools," said Molly Chrein, president of Macarthur Elementary School's PTA, adding that increasing teacher pay would make city schools better. "Our schools are only as good as our personnel."

On Monday night, Superintendent Rebecca Perry told audience members at a meeting of the Upper King Street Civic Association that schools have never been funded properly. She was speaking to concerned members of the community about improvements being made to Jefferson-Houston School for Arts and Academics, which failed to pass Virginia accreditation benchmarks in three categories last year. Under No Child Left Behind, the school is penalized for consistently low scores by allowing parents the choice of opting out of the school because of its inability to meet standards.

"People always say that you don't solve a problem by throwing money at it," Perry said. "Well, we've never really tried that."