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‘How Did That Happen?’

Tale of two funds

To change or not to change dedicated funding for the Affordable Housing Fund and Open Space Fund. That is the question.

This is a story about two funds that have made a significant difference in Alexandria for a decade and how they are possibly threatened.

The public is understandably concerned about the future of dedicated funding for the long-established Affordable Housing Fund and Open Space Fund. I certainly share their concern, and I hope this letter will help clarify what the two funds are, their impact, and why we need to reinstate the dedicated funds for these set asides. Otherwise, Alexandria will have two funds without a predictable, consistent base of support and will be up and down like the wind.

For now, the Affordable Housing Fund and the Open Space Fund will be funded through FY2014, and the council put an additional amount of $174,000 into supporting affordable housing. What is difficult to fathom is that after FY2014, these two funds will no longer have a dedicated or set aside amount unless the City Council votes to put funds into it. Therefore, depending upon the council makeup and the economy, the amount in each fund will vary wildly.

I hope we can right this ship, because having these two funds with dedicated funding made good policy sense for a decade and helped our city achieve its civic goals, as stated in the city's seven-point strategic plan.

Until May 6 when the City Council voted for the budget, no one knew that the dedicated monies to support these two funds were on the chopping block. I have heard from housing and open space advocates asking me about this dramatic change in policy. I have told them that this change came out of nowhere.

From late February through early May, the City Council had numerous meetings, work sessions, and public hearings, but not one of those meetings was focused on the future of the dedicated funding for the Affordable Housing Fund and the Open Space Fund. The council also had a Preliminary Add/Delete meeting, which took many hours, and then had an hour-long Final Add/Delete meeting. The set asides were not discussed at either one and were not part of our lengthy debates, though we did debate the pros and cons of everything else under the sun.

Adding something after the Final Add/Delete meeting is unheard of and does not bode well for our open, democratic process. It undermines it. The budget motion should only include what was discussed and agreed upon prior to the formal vote. Regardless of how each of us feels about the set asides, it is important to have a full, scheduled discussion about an issue, especially one that would change a long-standing policy.

If the public had known about this possible change, then the public would have had time to respond and write us, just as they did about the Warwick pool, the meters in Old Town, the schools, etc. Not one email came in about these two funds because no one knew about a possible change.

On April 15, the City Council had a work session with the Budget & Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission to get their take on the budget and the city's fiscal health. The BFAAC chair, John Renner, gave a detailed presentation to the council with dozens of bullet points, and one of his points was a sentence about BFAAC's support to eliminate the designated funds for the set asides. One or two colleagues on council expressed support for Mr. Renner's point. This lasted a couple of minutes at most. Then Mr. Renner continued.

Making a comment for a minute or two does not mean that the council has discussed the issue, nor does it mean there is council consensus. In contrast, during the Preliminary Add/Delete meeting, for a moment, we did have consensus when there were four of us (Mayor Euille, Councilman Chapman, Councilwoman Pepper, and myself) who wanted to increase the designated funds for the Affordable Housing Fund. The mayor then withdrew his support of increasing the funds, and we had to drop the matter, but that would have been a perfect moment for others to raise their feelings about eliminating the dedicated funds for the set asides, but we did not have that discussion.

A week later on May 6, we had the Final Add/Delete meeting that lasted just over an hour. Nothing was discussed about the set asides. We then had a 20-minute break before the budget vote in Council Chambers. At some point, the two sentences about eliminating the dedicated funds were added. Yet, the motion should have only included what we agreed upon as a council. The motion was not in our docket. How can a person read a document when it is not there? One cannot. This matter came out of nowhere.

If some of my colleagues would like to have this discussion, then let's have that discussion openly and hear from the public. Now, on short notice, the public will have a chance to weigh in. There will be a council public hearing on the morning of June 15.

Last point. Some have blamed staff for this. In contrast, I do not blame staff at all. I think they did an outstanding job and serve the public well, but they would not change policy without direction.

The bottom line is that we as a council have a serious responsibility: to serve the public good. I am honored to serve and find it very meaningful. We must work hard to earn the public's trust each day, and I believe that begins with a fair, open democratic process, as well as reinstating the dedicated funds for the Affordable Housing Fund and the Open Space Fund. Otherwise, we may look back in a decade and ask ourselves, "How did that happen?"

I hope that our citizens will weigh in and share their thoughts and concerns with us on council.