In his third State of the City Address, Mayor Bill Euille vowed to spend the next year focusing on helping children and families while improving educational opportunities for public-school students. At the Holiday Inn on First Street, the mayor addressed a host of issues — everything from rising tax bills to crime in Arlandria. But it was the focus on children, families and schools that the mayor wanted to emphasize.
"Our youth are the future of the city," Euille said toward the end of the speech. "It is our job to see that they succeed, and that their families have the support that they need."
The mayor said that City Hall is determined to expand after-school and weekend programs, a commitment that includes a new $101,187 position in the Department of Human Services to coordinate before- and after-school recreation programs. Currently, only two elementary schools have licensed programs, and a new coordinator would be responsible for overseeing the new system. Euille said that children need a variety of after-school options.
"Thanks to the generosity of the Woman’s National Basketball Association and local businessman Rodney Hunt, we will have a renovated gym at our Mount Vernon Recreation Center and a cyber café, where teens can hang out and watch big-screen TV or use the center’s computers," Euille said. "This is the type of program that we need to duplicate in other areas of the city."
Euille also reminded the audience of the city’s ongoing efforts to build a $98.9-million facility for T.C. Williams High School — a commitment that he said will be an investment for years to come.
"If you drive west on King Street, you can’t miss the construction site of our new T.C. Williams High School," he said. "The new high school now under construction will open in fall 2007, providing the kind of modern facility that we need to provide a first-rate, world-class education for our students."
THE MAYOR’S MOST anticipated remarks came early in the speech, when he talked about rising property tax bills. Last month, City Manager Jim Hartmann proposed a plan that would increase spending by 7 percent in the coming year with an alternative plan that would increase spending by 6 percent. This would put the tax rate somewhere between 84.7 cents and 82.9 cents for every $100 of assessed value.
"We’re going to lean more toward the six percent," Euille said. "Dealing with the proposed budget will require making difficult choices."
Under Hartmann’s proposed budget, the average residential property tax bill will increase $427 from $4,035 to $4,462. The mayor was quick to announce his displeasure with City Hall’s increasing reliance on taxpayers.
"As we move ahead, I ask you whether or not it is time for us to consider a paradigm shift," he said. "If we want to maximize our development potential and take full advantage of Alexandria’s four Metro stations, it may be time to consider increasing allowable development at or nearby some of our stations."
This prospect was met with extended applause — clearly the most popular of the mayor’s initiatives among the members of the Chamber of Commerce. Euille said that by increasing development in these areas, City Hall could decrease its reliance on taxpayers.
"By taking advantage of the availability of mass transit and allowing bonus density at certain sites, our commercial and residential tax base and affordable housing opportunities can grow," he said. "This would enable us to decrease our reliance on existing residential real-estate taxpayers and provide tax relief to our property owners."
EUILLE ENUNCIATED a laundry list of priorities, everything from public safety to education initiatives to technological innovation. He advocated increasing the number of playing fields in the city, closing Mirant power plant and creating a new Safe Haven homeless shelter on North Patrick Street.
"Many of us are probably one paycheck away from being homeless," Euille said. "This Safe Haven project is another example of us being a caring community."
He said the unemployment rate was low while the demand for housing was high. He encouraged residents to watch City Council meetings on the city’s Web site. And he endorsed major developments at Eisenhower East, Potomac Yard and Landmark Mall.
Ultimately, Euille said, "Our economy is strong, and we now have over 93,000 jobs in Alexandria," he said. "Our city is growing and changing as we add new development and many new residents, but we retain our commitment to making sure that Alexandria is a vibrant, diverse, caring, affordable and safe community. We live in a very special city, and we will always preserve and protect our historic properties and that small-town feeling."
LONNIE RICH, the recently installed chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, said that he would like to see the city’s spending increases reduced. He said that an increase between 3 percent to 5 percent would be ideal, adding that rising property tax bills have created a burden for taxpayers.
"The real-estate tax burden has been growing too fast," he said. "It’s hurting the residential community, and it’s also hurting the business community."
Others agreed that the city’s reliance on property taxpayers had become unsustainable. Engin Artemel, a former director of planning, said that the city must find other ways of doing business.
"I think we need to find new revenue sources," Artemel said. "The tax issue is going to come back to haunt us."
Laura Machanic, president of Alexandria-based New Target Internet Design, said that she is concerned that rising tax bills will create a situation where growth in city spending may become unsustainable.
"I think it’s time for us to ask some serious questions about where our tax base comes from," she said. "Having just received my tax assessment in the mail, I’m wondering why the city’s spending needs to increase so much."