Green ties and shamrock pins sparkled in the early morning hours last week, as all eleven candidates for City Council made their way to a forum hosted by the Chamber of Commerce. Candidate Pat Troy and Vice Mayor Del Pepper spoke of their Irish heritage, while Councilman Rob Krupicka apologized for wearing an orange tie.
“It’s probably inappropriate to wear orange on St. Patrick’s Day,” he said, eliciting laughter from the crowd. “But so be it.”
Although the candidates may have wished that the luck of the Irish was with them, they needed deft political skills to appeal to members of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. With the budget season now in full swing, council members and candidates have been placed in a difficult position — retaining the current level of services while keeping city employees competitive with surrounding jurisdictions at a cost that doesn’t break the bank.
For members of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, that’s an important goal. At a public hearing on March 13, several chamber members formally announced a plan for City Council to reduce the budget from City Manager Jim Hartmann’s $503.5 million to $494.1 million.
“We can’t sustain double-digit property tax increases year after year,” said Lonnie Rich, a former member of the City Council who is now the chamber’s chairman. “It’s a burden on the residential community and on the business community.”
Candidates were quick to announce their support of the business community in Alexandria and denounce impediments to small-business growth and economic development. And they addressed a number of issues that were of concern to members of the chamber.
“We’ve got to be business friendly,” said Councilman Ludwig Gaines, a Democratic incumbent up for reelection.
“Any tax is going to hurt businesses,” said School Board member Ken Foran, who is running a Republican campaign for council.
“We’ve got to make parking in Old Town convenient and simple,” Krupicka said.
“Alexandria is not a business-friendly community,” said Craig Miller, a Republican candidate for office. “Let’s go to the root of the problem — planning and zoning.”
BUSINESS LICENSES were a major topic of conversation for chamber members, and several candidates promised the local business leaders that they would find ways to streamline the process. In fiscal year 2006, the city estimates that the Department of Planning and Zoning will issue 1,950 business licenses and review 875 building permits. But many say that the process is bogged down with bureaucracy and red tape.
“People are so frustrated with the permitting process,” said Timothy Lovain, a Democratic candidate for office. “We need more predictability.”
“I’m a businessman, and I’ve gone through hell,” said Troy, who owns an Irish pub on North Pitt Street. “The bureaucracy in our city is awful.”
“We need to streamline the small-business permitting process,” said Krupicka.
Republican candidate Bernie Schultz suggested that the online forms could help make the permitting process more efficient. Gaines said that he supports the idea of creating a checklist that could help applicants navigate through the process. Miller suggested that the department could use a qualified contractor list to prevent needless delays. Foran said he experienced frustration as a member of the School Board trying to navigate through the permitting process to build new schools.
“We had to go through the same process you have to go through,” Foran said. “We need to expedite licensing and make it easier.”
RISING TAX BILLS created the basis for most of the conversation, and the city’s reliance on property taxpayers was a concern for many candidates. Residential property taxes are the city’s leading source of revenue, providing 34 percent of the General Fund. Commercial property taxes are a close second, accounting for 21 percent of the city’s revenues. The city manager’s proposed budget adds $19 million to the revenue that he expects taxpayers to contribute this year.
“Local governments cannot continue to rely on property taxes,” said Councilman Paul Smedberg, a Democratic candidate for reelection.
“Taxes are destroying our city,” Troy said.
“The direction we are going in is not sustainable,” Pepper said.
“This council is addicted to spending,” said Townsend Van Fleet, a Republican candidate. “I’m a direct descendent of George Mason, who gave you the Bill of Rights, and I want to give you a taxpayers’ bill of rights."
Nobody offered any specific suggestions about how to cut the budget or what programs might be eliminated or scaled back. Instead, most of the candidates focused on the need to reduce the burden on taxpayers. One candidate — Councilman Andrew Macdonald — made a comment that shocked many in the room when he said increased development will not lower taxes.
“As we grow, it will cost money,” Macdonald said. “We can limit the increase, but the tax bill will never drop.”
Macdonald was critical of the city’s growing tendency to spend more money, and he said that he thinks the rate of increase should be kept at a 5-percent annual increase. Schultz agreed that city spending had increased too much in recent years, adding that he was concerned about problems arising in the future because the City Council has become too reliant on exponentially growing tax assessments.
“Predictions are that the condominium market is softening,” Schultz said. “We have no contingency plan.”
MARKETING THE CITY was a major concern to chamber members, and several candidates spoke to the need to bring tourists and other visitors to the city. They said that strategic investments now might reap substantial returns in the future, and that the city should think about marketing more than Old Town.
“The rest of the city needs to be marketed,” said Lovain, adding that Fort Ward Park could be marketed to Civil War buffs.
“Every inch of this city is historic,” said Schultz, who suggested making the entire city a historic district.
“We must be marketing tech businesses,” said Councilman Gaines, who said that the city could be working harder to attract technology businesses to the city.
“We need to coordinate economic development in Alexandria, and we need to know what it is we want,” Councilman Smedberg said.
Pepper said that the city should try to market the office space that will soon be vacated by the Department of Defense in response to recommendations by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission. More than 7,200 jobs are affected by BRAC’s decision, which will vacate 8 percent of the office space in the city in the next several years.
“It was really a very sobering experience,” said Pepper, who tried to prevent the jobs from moving out of the city. “It’s a blessing that we have time to think about what we should do next.”