Though last Thursdays City Council forum among the 10 vying candidates often whorled into talks about the tough economic times permeating the city, the discussions were apt for the debates intended theme of social issues and nonprofit organizations, highlighting the declining economys effect on human services, education and safety.
Mayor Bill Euille (D) opened the social debate at T.C. Williams High School, Minnie Howard Campus by reinforcing the roles nonprofit organizations play in society filling the holes that government cannot always fill.
We have many nonprofit organizations and social service agencies for our most vulnerable citizens in helping the city deliver what we can do, Euille said. Everyone has the expectation that government is supposed to do everything. Itd be nice if we could, but its impossible [and] its impractical, even in good times.
When asked about holes in Alexandrias social safety net, — what programs are failing, how candidates would fix them and the idea of public-private relationships — collaboration seemed to be the catch phrase of the night to those who answered the question (not all candidates got to answer the same questions unless they used one of three rebuttals). Candidates focused on how existing programs could do better rather than identifying programs that simply do not work.
Its hard to come up with something thats not working off the top of my head because I think there are a lot of things that arent working as well as we would like them to work, Councilman Tim Lovain (D) said. I think what we can do better is collaborate between the nonprofit organizations and the city to make sure that were having consultations among the human services committee to look for gaps, to look for redundancies and share best practices so we can get the greatest efficiency out of our resources.
Lovain, who is finishing his first term on Council, pointed to retractable social problems like homelessness, substance abuse and a lack of affordable housing as issues the city could improve on.
Councilman Justin Wilson (D), who has served about 20 months on Council after he won a special election, did not identify specific holes in the social safety net, but emphasized more than once the need to recognize that there is a great opportunity for better cooperation between nonprofits and cities in the educational realm. The omnipresent fiscal austerity, Wilson said, forces more tough decisions on the city government in terms of education cuts.
One of the other things that I think is missing in [this discussion] is enough [support] of early childcare, at least the fee system that would support subsidizing the preschool childcare program, Vice Mayor Del Pepper (D) said. Once you can get those children on an even playing field youve got a child that can go forward for a future and is going to be doing well.
Rich Williamson (I), a federal employee and former Tennessee school board member, offered a way to maintain nonprofits current effectiveness in order to sustain them throughout the recession.
He suggested developing partnerships between nonprofits and the neighborhoods surrounding them to integrate human services with the citizens they effect. He also proposed a direct partnership between taxpayers and the charities where they can actually designate a portion of their taxes to a charity that has been approved by the city, to stabilize charities, priming them for a post-recession city economy.
Frank Fannon (R) who works for Suntrust Mortgage and is a fifth-generation Alexandrian, focused on children as some of the citys most valuable resources, suggesting increased volunteerism to help fill the holes created by government service cuts and a plan to encourage guidance counselors to explore such opportunities.
U.S. Patent and Trade Office employee Alicia Hughes (I) was stable in her support for all social services at all costs despite the economic conditions, citing the 61 percent decrease in funding from the government to the Northern Virginia Urban League, of which she is a member.
Preservation of social services at this juncture is critical, Hughes said. When you have an increase in unemployment you have an increase in dependency on the very social services that the city manager has now proposed to cut. It flies in the face of logic and reasoning
Two-term incumbent Councilman Paul Smedberg highlighted, among other social agencies, the Senior Services of Alexandria, of which he is on the board.
This is an agency that doesnt get a lot of press but does an extreme amount of good in this community, Smedberg said. He added that health services, education and public safety are three tenets of social services that should be maintained at all costs.
In response to a question asking what services he would slash if necessary, two-term incumbent Councilman Rob Krupicka (D) said there were many cuts proposed by the city manger that he never dreamed would be cut. He added the city has yet to close a recreation center or library but imposing no tax increase puts those kinds of things on the table.
West End realtor and Gulf War veteran Phil Cefaratti (R), said he would vote to decrease the size of the Department of Planning and Zoning, despite making enemies with the department, which has increased by 16 employees between 2005 and the 2009 fiscal year. Cutting positions and streamlining that department, and others, would clear up at least some funds for human services, he said.
Former Mayor Kerry Donley (D) gave perhaps the most concrete proposal of the night when he proposed increasing the real estate tax rate, the citys main revenue source, to 5 cents, as opposed to the current proposed rate of 4.2 cents. Taxpayers modest contribution would raise about $2.5 million in revenue, which Donley said could go towards aiding the increased demand for social services amid an economic decline. The maximum real estate tax as advertised by Council is six cents.
These funds could be used for additional employment services to keep people working, assistance to families facing eviction, funding for community services that provide food, shelter [and] clothing, Donley said.