Alexandria City Council puts an end to set-aside kerfuffle

By Derrick Perkins

Alexandria’s top elected officials have put an end to weeks of confusion and consternation, reinstating a dedicated stream of tax dollars for affordable housing while eliminating the same for open space acquisition.

The controversy arose in the final rounds of budget negotiations, when the set-asides — so called because they shunt a percentage of the annual tax haul directly into established funds — disappeared from the fiscal roadmap.

Though both funds still receive money, the move alarmed Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg and City Councilor John Chapman. The pair worried about the lack of public notice and discussion, and Silberberg said she was unaware of the change when voting for the budget.

“[That] lack of civic engagement, that lack of public participation is what really gets me the most,” Silberberg said during a council meeting last week. “The reason to have dedicated funding is that it’s predictable. It lets developers know that this is a priority, and it lets the other communities know that Alexandria is committed to that [issue].”

While city council voted 5-2 on June 11 to restore the set-aside for affordable housing, it did not do the same for open space. Removing the dedicated funding — while still providing dollars toward the cause — gives officials more flexibility, said City Councilor Justin Wilson.

“By keeping the dedication … we are basically saying to the city manager, as he prepares his budget and prepares to deal with $9 [million] to $20 million worth of cuts, that you can cut absolutely anywhere else in our budget except for open space,” he said. “And I’m not prepared to do that.”

Officials were quick to note that despite removing the set-aside, there is about $23 million for open space in the city’s capital improvement plan. And City Hall has successfully convinced developers to pitch in as part of major projects, said City Councilor Paul Smedberg.

Those arguments failed to convince Silberberg, who voted against the elimination while citing the lack of public discourse before the set-sides were stripped from the budget.

“We’re going to have to address that so that something isn’t added after the fact,” she said. “[The] process needs to be open and far more democratic in that way.”

Chapman countered, though, by pointing out the dollars set aside went to paying off the debt on finished projects.

“The issue of transparency really comes up when you look at [this set-aside], because we’re not being transparent with Alexandria’s citizens in saying that we have this set-aside for funding for open space. Because, there’s no extra open space money that we’re going to be preserving or keeping,” he said. “We’re going to be paying off projects that we already have [with the money].”

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