As the new-look City Council begins its legislative sessions this Tuesday after a summer recess, a new-look city government will manifest itself under principles exerted on it by the state of the economy, characterized here by what officials currently estimate could be a budget shortfall of about $35 million.
It is no secret, given the countrys economic recession, that the city no longer has the luxury of ample funds readily available to spend on new initiatives that do not already exist in the citys capital improvement plan, whether pertaining to development and land use, social programs or city services on which residents rely for a high quality of life.
There hasnt been a lot of activity and no major initiatives moving through [City Council] for several reasons, said Mayor Bill Euille. And one of the primary reasons is that theres just no money.
For the three new members of City Council, Vice Mayor Kerry Donley (D), Councilman Frank Fannon (R) and Councilwoman Alicia Hughes (I), the ringing in of a new policymaking season offers a potential landscape of shrewd spending and prioritization.
While the city has funds identified for certain long-term projects and city services, there will likely be a dearth of new and particularly costly initiatives.
Everybody wants to come on with their guns loaded and ready to fire, ready to show that they have a purpose and some issues and initiatives theyd like to raise, Euille said. But again these are not normal times. Im not going to prevent or discourage folks from bringing things forward but its about recognizing the challenges that were up against.
Tuesdays Council meeting marks the first formal meeting of the newly diversified governing body, complete with a former mayor in Donley, the first Republican to sit on Council since 2003 in Fannon and a relative newcomer to the city in Hughes, an Independent endorsed by the Alexandria Republican City Committee.
The economic landscape, at least in the immediate future, perhaps caters to Fannons and Hughes campaign pledges of buttoned-down spending and fiscal efficiency measures more than it does Donleys, who seeks investment in development to broaden the citys tax base.
I am more concerned about the effective and efficient use of existing resources as opposed to increases, Hughes said. I am very concerned about anything that would require an increase in taxes on the public.
Such prospects for underfunded or unfunded projects like the redevelopment of Landmark Mall are long-term goals that need to be planned proactively for future prosperity, if not realized for a few years, according to Donley.
In the short-term its going to be tough sledding for the next fiscal year, Donley said. I think that we have to move with all haste on redevelopment opportunities and keep a long-term goal in mind to increase and diversify the tax base, adding that now is not the time for new, expensive initiatives.
Euille said that specific spending priorities would not take shape until Council has worked more together, but that he puts a premium on economic development first and foremost. He is also focused on cost-neutral projects and identifying additional revenue sources service reductions and tax and fee increases, for example to bring money to the city coffers; its a prospect that would be on the table after exhausting all belt-tightening options, Euille said.
Meanwhile, the city plans to review and act on an audit of city employees done last year, perhaps leading to efficiency measures and altered compensation for a workforce with frozen wages.
One of the things I think is going to be a challenge this year but what Id like to try to make some progress on is compensation for city employees, Donley said. They effectively havent really had any compensation increases for about three years now. If were going to attract and retain a quality workforce, were not going to be able to postpone salary adjustments and raises forever.
Fannon, whose platform during the election focused on attracting businesses to the city, public-private partnerships and a streamlined city government, plans to introduce an initiative that would utilize city-owned land and buildings either for internal use (like office space) or to rent out to businesses under a long-term lease as an efficient boon to the citys economy.
What we really need to do is make sure we are utilizing all our city assets to benefit the city as best we can, Fannon said, referencing a city-owned parking lot in the midst of the Old Town business district.
The new Council member spent the summer after his election contacting businesses, trying to attract them to the city.
We need to get as many businesses in Alexandria as we can, he said. Im talking about going to businesses, asking people to come to Alexandria and putting them in touch with commercial real estate people that are interested in trying to find a space for them here in Alexandria.
Hughes, like Fannon, is gearing up for her initial session as a politician this year. She ran on a platform that also included fiscal efficiency, which suits the youngest member of Council aptly, considering the palpable void of excess funds.
We dont [have a lot of money], Hughes said. So we have to look for the best and most effective use for every dollar that we have. So I turn to Council with a keen eye to that.
The diversity of the new governing body and the new legislative season evoked excitement among the colleagues, eager to push their issues up to the policy level, despite the glaring and perhaps restrictive challenges. With more distinction among the members than in any time in recent memory, this policy-making season intends to be a dynamic one.
In the past, City Council members have had the luxury of saying, I want us to study this, I want us to move forward with this, Euille said. This year were going to have to all work together to shore that up.
Its going to be a very interesting year I look forward to it, Hughes said. Im very grateful for the diversity that weve got on the Council, because thats where I think you get the best points of view and the best ideas. I look forward to this with eager anticipation.
Fannon said, Now that were not campaigning against each other, were going to be governing together. So we need to have a working relationship.