Behind the Dais – City Council Rings in a New Year

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Hear Ye! Hear Ye! bellowed Alexandria CityCrier William North-Rudin as he walked down the aisle of council chambers at City Hall Tuesday night, bell in hand. Let it be known that upon this evening, September ninth, in the year of our Lord 2009, we announce the opening of our session of the Alexandria City Council!

North-Rudins baritone vocal chords rang in the City Councils return to the dais for the new fiscal year, beginning a long but noteworthy first meeting where topics of discussion ranged from booze sales to ethanol. The citys financial picture was also painted, not in the brightest colors, but not the dullest either.

Whats Black with Red All Over?
The regions economic picture is, according to a report given by Deputy City Manager Mark Jinks. In relative terms, compared to our neighboring jurisdictions we remain in overall better fiscal shape and were not feeling the same economic hits that jurisdictions outside the beltway are experiencing, Jinks said. He added that last years budget projections were dead-on bulls eye, the city having spent about .2 percent more than projected, although official numbers have not yet been released. Mayor Bill Euille commended city staff for making a conservative economic road map that helped the city prepare for the tanking economy.

In bleaker financial news, Mayor Euille spoke with Gov. Tim Kaine (D) Tuesday, who told him that this year the Commonwealth will be confronted with some major, major cuts all across the board, primarily in the areas of transportation social services, education and public safety. The number seems to move every day, but Kaine told Euille to expect more than the $1 billion cuts that were reported last week, and to brace for upwards of $1.5 and $2 billion shortfalls.

Its going to dominate everything we do, Councilman Rob Krupicka said regarding the budget.

Ethanol Update
Steve Mason, special assistant to the city manager, presented an update on the ethanol transfer station on the West End whose surprise presence outraged the residents of Cameron Station and Summer Grove this spring when the company, Norfolk Southern, began handling the potentially dangerous chemical on a daily basis within a stones throw of residential neighborhoods and Samuel Tucker Elementary School.

While Council was out of session, Vice Mayor Del Pepper testified to the Surface Transportation Board (STB) regarding the process used to decide where a railroad carrying chemicals like ethanol can setup shop. A homeland security analysis was also done, Mason said. The Transportation Security Administration will brief city officials on its findings at the end of September but the report will not be made public due to its sensitive nature.

Mason also gave an update on the evacuation plans for the areas surrounding the ethanol station, which are now complete with a fence and gate separating Cameron Station from the adjacent Home Depot, the rallying point in the case of a disaster. An asphalt walkway will be constructed within the next few weeks as well. Both the fence and the walkway are compliant with the American Disabilities Act.

The Alexandria Office of Homeland Security (yes, it exists) recommended upgrades to the site, and on Tuesday, Norfolk Southern announced that it hired private, unarmed security guards to patrol the station seven days a week, from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekdays and around the clock on weekends.

City Attorney Ignacio Pessoa presented updates on the legal proceedings between the city and Norfolk Southern. The city appealed to the STB to force Norfolk Southern to abide by local zoning laws but is still waiting on an answer.

Those proceedings are somewhat opaque, Pessoa said. We really dont have any way of determining when the board will act or whats going on, although weve tried to find out through back channels. He added that the city has been aggressive in pursuing the companys ousting from its current site.

A lawsuit between Alexandria and Norfolk Southern regarding hauling permits is also in the works, with depositions beginning this month. Pessoa said he expects a ruling within six months.

Upon request from the Cameron Station Civic Association, there will be a docket item at the Sept. 23 City Council Legislative meeting that will bring up discussion of a possible independent investigation of the situation that led to Norfolk Southerns presence in a residential area for seven weeks without the citys knowledge.

Stores Opt to Sell Booze
The citys plan to decrease crime and loitering in the Arlandria neighborhood by limiting alcohol sales backfired when the effort, based on the voluntary cooperation of storeowners, was marred by the owners of two area 7-11s whom refused to stop selling alcohol at 11 p.m.

Alcohol sales at the 24 Hour Express, the store from where problems seem to emanate and where a ban on post-11 p.m. alcohol was in effect, will again be able to sell alcohol until midnight with police presence after next weeks legislative meeting.

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