Underscoring ‘Accountable’ in Alexandria

Underscoring ‘Accountable’ in Alexandria

Budget process highlights local government management.

City Council and staff have met several times in past weeks to discuss government spending initiatives, many of which pertain to local government’s accountability and effectiveness.

City staff have categorized several explicitly under “accountable, effective and well-managed government,” one of four “focus areas” according to which City Manager Mark Jinks organized his FY 2020 budget proposal. Other initiatives fall under different focus areas, but directly relate.

Little time remains for citizens to weigh in on the city’s $761 million general fund operating budget and $1.6 billion 10-year capital improvement budget. Council members must submit additions and deletions to Jinks’ proposal on Thursday, April 11. A second and final budget public hearing will follow on Saturday, April 13. Council will adopt its final budget on Wednesday, May 1, ahead of the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

An exchange between Council member Mohamed “Mo” Seifeldein and Jinks raised the question, which crops up periodically, about how the roles of elected officials and professional staff relate.

The budget envisions purchasing “only electric or hybrid gas/electric general purpose sedans” for the city’s fleet, which totals 458 vehicles. Staff plans to work out details and have a draft policy recommendation to Jinks this summer.

“Should we really be looking at hybrids at this point at all, as a policy?” asked Seifeldein, who believes fully electric vehicles are the future. Can council members “jump in before [the draft policy] gets to the manager …? Sometimes a lot of [staff] work has already been done … and then it comes before council for a yea or nay.”

“Traditionally, a decision like this doesn’t come to council. We decide, as staff, using professional expertise, what kind of vehicles to buy and how to buy them,” said Jinks. “We will [have a broader discussion] when we bring a policy to you. We’ve [first] got to draft it, we’ve got to kick it around.”

“Clearly, council can exert whatever authority we want,” said Mayor Justin Wilson. He thinks council should articulate a “high level” goal — in this case, to attain “the greenest possible fleet” — and instruct staff to “bring us back a series of options.”

The exchange echoes a high-profile 2017 budget advisory task force, which lamented that top-dollar capital projects often come to council with subjective but undocumented staff decisions baked in.

Staff next year will implement “a new project justification and development process,” said Morgan Routt, the city’s budget director. The process “will require all projects to meet specific criteria, including alternatives analysis and civic engagement, before advancing from concept to funding, design and construction.”

The planning and zoning department wants to add a new $103,000 “civic engagement outreach coordinator” to “to ensure that plans, policy changes, and development applications are meaningfully shaped by the communities they impact.”

Karl Moritz, the city’s planning director, envisions the process behind last year’s South Patrick Street Housing Affordability Strategy as “the new standard for how we do [community] outreach.” That approach involved “everything from going door-to-door to talk to people and handing out flyers to live-streaming the [community engagement] workshop.” But “all of that … is a work-intensive thing to do” requiring more dedicated manpower, he said.

In the past, the city’s planning processes have mainly attracted “regulars,” “people who are familiar, people who have been involved before,” said Jinks. Whereas “in South Patrick Street, we got the largest participation by renters in that plan than we’ve really had in a planning [outreach initiative].”

City staff are working on making the city website more user-friendly and better searchable, according to Craig Fifer, the city’s communications and public information director. Jinks proposes creating a new $98,000 “web editor” position toward that end.

Jinks says the upgraded web interface will be more “aggressive” in pushing new content to users, akin to how a newspaper website continuously puts new stories front and center.

“People who visit our web site can learn a lot more about what’s going on in the city, even if they didn’t come to the site looking for that,” he said.

A new “Alex311” customer service system will replace the city’s current “Call.Click.Connect” online interface, beginning later this year. The new system will enable residents to communicate with city government by phone, text, app, online chat and social media. Necessary new software would cost $250,000, increasing to $500,000 in FY 2021. Net operating costs, including a few new supporting staff, would increase by $350,000.

For more, including budget materials and video recordings of public budget events, visit www.alexandriava.gov/Budget.