Balancing the Books

Balancing the Books

Members of the city council identify priorities.

Affordable housing, teacher pay and guaranteed income are among the topics being considered by members of City Council as they approach a budget vote on May 1. After City Manager Jim Parajon presented his proposed budget last month, council members had the opportunity to request more or less funding in specific areas. Council members are expected to hold a work session finalizing the requests. 

Many of the proposed revisions aim to provide more resources to low-income families. One, submitted by council members Sarah Bagley and Canek Aguirre, would continue a guaranteed income pilot program called ARISE. The program, which started in late 2022, provides $500 monthly payments to 170 residents at or below 50 percent of the area median income. At the April 13 budget public hearing, several residents shared their support for ARISE.

“Everyday, I see how stressed my mother gets because of the high cost of living,” said Walter Piche, a freshman attending Alexandria City High School. “She has no days off, all to be able to pay the high cost of rent and to provide what is necessary for us. … My wish is that you support us because there is not enough housing here for families like mine. We need programs like ARISE.”

If it is not included in the final budget, the program would end.

“Cities all over the country [provide guaranteed income] as pilot programs because we as Americans just simply can’t bring ourselves to give money to poor people,” said Jonathan Krall, a co-founder of Grassroots Alexandria. “Study after study show the economic benefits of doing so to the entire community.” 

Also being considered by the City Council is a $3,000,000 one-time payment for affordable housing projects. The payment was requested by Councilman Kirk McPike and would be spent on projects that have been approved but not funded.

“I’ve always described [Alexandria] as a tale of two cities,” said lifelong resident Amanda Eisenhour. “Nearly unfathomable levels of wealth situated just blocks from families that can barely get by … As any resident will tell you, the rent is simply too high.”

Another item proposed by McPike, as well as Councilwoman Aliya Gaskins, is to broaden a tax relief program for disabled and/or elderly residents. The program currently provides relief to Alexandrians earning less than $72,000 annually, but with the proposed $1 million suggested by McPike and Gaskins, eligibility would be expanded to incomes up to $100,000. Linda Paulson, who is disabled, spoke at the public hearing on how the tax relief has affected her.

“[This program] has made it possible for me to stay in my home. This is a really big deal,” Paulson said. “While I can’t speak for the hundreds of other people who are helped by this program, I can tell you the idea of having to move while this sick is terrifying.”

Two other requests, both submitted by McPike, also aim to support underserved Alexandrians: an additional $200,000 towards community-based food hubs and $100,000 for a twice-per-week shuttle service for people who can’t walk between the Mark Center bus stop and the Del Pepper Community Resource Center. 

Another theme prevalent throughout budget revisions was support for city youth. Perhaps the most significant request was from Gaskins, who proposed spending $67 million to update several schools. Gaskins and McPike also requested a cost-of-living adjustment for school staff, something notably absent from Parajon’s proposed budget despite a recommendation from the School Board to include it. 

“What could be more important to a student’s academic success than a dedicated teacher with years of experience?,” said Catherine Clinger, chair of Alexandria’s Children, Youth and Families Collaborative Commission. “We join our teachers and staff as it is our belief that their compensation should reflect the uniquely vital role that all school staff play in our children’s wellbeing.”

Another member of the youth commission, Julie Murphy, shared her satisfaction with McPike’s appeal to provide stipends to juvenile members of city commissions. 

“Participating in the civic life of our city can be challenging for many of our youth,” she said. “Offering stipends allows youth from low-income families the opportunity to help support their families while continuing to learn and develop in an environment that is dedicated to their educational and socio-emotional needs.”

An additional piece of funding focused on adolescents is $165,000 that would go to the Alexandria Youth Ambassadors, a program where high school students lead engagement work relating to trauma healing, anti-violence, and social-emotional learning. 

On the marketing side of the budget, Mayor Justin Wilson is seeking to spend $500,000 (in addition to $200,000 already allocated by Parajon) on promoting Alexandria as a tourism hub across the country. According to Visit Alexandria, the city tourism agency, this investment would result in at least $1.5 million of extra revenue in next year’s budget.

A community outreach position for city libraries is also on the table thanks to a request from Councilman Canek Aguirre. 

“An outreach librarian will not only provide books and services to people throughout Alexandria, but it will introduce Alexandrians to our incredible libraries for the first time,” said Dan Roth, a member of the Friends of Duncan Library. “Outreach will mean more people entering the library, more people reading books, and more people being introduced to our outstanding staff.”

The city could see two more community engagement positions, since Gaskins proposed the restoration of Senior Services outreach coordinators who would work with elderly Alexandrians who speak minimal or no English. And although it’s no sports arena, a request from Vice Mayor Amy Jackson would help fund a new performing arts center in Old Town for MetroStage.

“The limitations of venues … and the lack of artistic spaces in the city have underscored the urgent need for a dedicated state-of-the art theater facility,” said Ricardo Alfara, President of the MetroStage board. “Investing now in MetroStage’s new theater facility is an investment in the future of our city.”

To give feedback to the Council,