Your View: Who we are and who we should be

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By Mark Tonsetic, Member, Alexandria social services advisory board (File photo)

To the editor:
For most city residents, the Alexandria Department of Community and Human Services is something that enters awareness a few times a year, like when driving past its brick building on Mount Vernon Avenue or as we drop off donations for the annual holiday sharing program.

But for 22,000 city residents, the programs and services DCHS provides are a lifeline to health and wellbeing, whether in terms of avoiding hunger, ensuring access to Medicaid and health services, or supporting employment, re-skilling, and job placement.

City council faces a spring full of difficult budget choices. Estimates from November 2016 show a potential $15.9 million shortfall for fiscal 2018, excluding the additional needs requested by Alexandria City Public Schools. Even with tax adjustments, most departments are likely to face cuts to programs and services, on top of the cuts implemented over the past several years.

The next several months will see arguments across the city over what we can afford, what we can afford to lose, and what we can’t afford to ignore. But we can’t answer these questions without addressing two deeper questions:

Where will cuts do the least harm to city residents? Programs and services like those provided by DCHS can be invisible to many of us. It is when they’re invisible that they’re most successful, in that they mitigate the worst effects of issues, like poverty among senior citizens or prevent the long term consequences of issues like child welfare neglect.

Budget choices around these issues are not a matter of where taxpayer dollars can do the most visible good, but about who is likely to suffer, and by how much.

What kind of city do we want to be? The question of doing the “least harm” with budget cuts can’t provide guidance, however, in the absence of vision around who we want to be as a community.

The city’s vision for 2022 frames Alexandria as “a historic, inclusive city,” with, among other things, “…a strong economy, thriving children and youth, … healthy residents.”

True inclusion means that this vision cannot, and should not, be limited to the 90 percent of residents who live above the poverty line. It means recognizing who we are today, which includes those who depend on essential social services to thrive, and who we should be in the future — a city in which all residents have the opportunity to thrive.

Alexandria is fortunate to have both vision and choice. Our economic strength, even amid difficult budget years, affords us the opportunity to consider how we continue to grow and strengthen our city, its people and its values.
The consideration that city council gives should begin with reflection on who we are as a city: both those thriving and those needing the opportunity to thrive.

Who we should be is a city that recognizes this, and takes care to protect the most vulnerable against harm, even in difficult times. For a glimpse into who we are as a city, visit the DCHS website at www.alexandriava.gov/dchs/info/ default.aspx?id=93909 and select the “Who We Are” video produced by the city’s social services advisory board.

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