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Week in Alexandria

Budget Gridlock

The budget standoff in Richmond could have dramatic consequences in Alexandria, where every service from education services to transportation funding is on the line. Legislators fled the Capitol last weekend without adopting a budget, calling for a special session in March to finish the job. Some say that could be postponed or abandoned altogether unless an agreement breaks the 20-20 partisan deadlock in the Senate.

“I’m not making hotel reservations yet,” said Bernard Caton, legislative director for the city of Alexandria.

When the parties were deadlocked during the administration of former Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore, the only budget items up for consideration were amendments to the biennial budget. This year the whole biennial budget is on the line, raising the stakes in the partisan standoff. Trillions of dollars for transportation, social services and education are at stake.

“Wall Street doesn't like uncertainty, and I mean that's that the issue is — maintaining a AAA bond rating,” said George Mason University professor Toni-Michelle Travis. “And that's what usually brings compromise.”

Travis suspects the Democrats will blink first.

“Maybe not later in March, but April, May or June,” she said. “They'll hold out as long as they can and then they'll say, ‘OK we've made our point. Now we have to have a budget.’”

The final deadline for some kind of compromise is June 30.

Passing the Buck

City leaders are concerned that the Virginia Retirement System might take an unexpected chunk out of the budget, although the a final outcome depends on what happens with the budget standoff. One scenario would require local governments to increase salaries so city and school employees could contribute five percent of their salaries to the retirement system. Vice Mayor Kerry Donley said this was yet another example of an unfunded mandate from Richmond.

“This has happened with administration after administration, and it’s not a Democratic thing or a Republican thing,” said Donley, a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. “I think this is one more situation where we hear a lot of political rhetoric until its time to meet the financial obligations.”

Several weeks ago, Donley clashed with Republican Councilwoman Alicia Hughes, who was a member of the governor’s task force for local government mandate review. Donley criticized the work of the committee as trivial, prompting Hughes to outline what she felt was the significant work of the task force. This time, however, Donley and Hughes were in agreement about the potential burden changes to the retirement system could create for the city.

“Yes, this is an unfunded mandate,” said Hughes. “And it’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Parking the Guests

For years, residents at various spots in Old Town have been unable to obtain residential parking tags or even guest parking placards. The regulations were created more than a decade ago to account for the availability of off-street parking at newer developments such as Chatham Square and the Monarch. The conditions were created to minimize the crush of demand created by new developments. Now those regulations are being called into question.

City Council members are poised to consider a change to the city’s zoning ordinance that would allow all residents of Old Town to obtain guest parking passes. Currently if a resident at a restricted property goes to City Hall to get a guest pass for a visiting relative, the computer system denies the application as unauthorized. Councilman Paul Smedberg would like to see the reform taken a step further, allowing residents at some of the restricted properties to obtain residential parking passes as well.

“There’s a fundamental fairness issue here,” said Smeberg, who lives in a development known as Backyard Boats, one of the properties where residential and guest parking passes are currently unavailable.