What a terrific holiday season this was. I thought the annual lighting of the City’s Christmas tree at Market Square was very special. My husband and I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in Richmond with our son, daughter in law, and the five grandchildren-the five little Peppers.
It was a holiday to remember. “First Night Alexandria” was better than ever-if possible. This year the organizers added a race down King Street that began at 5 p.m. I’m not sure the north/south traffic on Patrick and Henry Streets appreciated the ten minute wait for the race to pass by, but it was a wonderful addition to a wonderful evening.

But now it’s over. The holiday decorations have been taken down and put away, and the party clothes are back in the closet. It is time to get down to business. The Council will be coming into session January 8, followed by a public hearing, January 12. The General Assembly convenes its 60 day session on January 9. And the City’s boards and commissions are back at work.

This will be a very busy year for the City Council. Among other things, here are five major items we will be working on as we begin 2008:  
The Braddock Metro Neighborhood Plan
The Planning Office has been working on this for some time. The original plan was prepared mainly in 2006, but has been all but discarded. Last summer, the Planning Office conducted a Listening Tour with stakeholders in the neighborhood. A number of meetings were held starting in September. Two more are scheduled in January-on the 7th & 24th. The schedule includes a public hearing on the plan by the Planning Commission March 4 and by the City Council on March 15.

The Landmark/Van Dorn Small Area Plan
The long awaited Landmark/Van Dorn Small Area Plan began with the first meeting of the 18 member Advisory Group on December 17 at Samuel Tucker Elementary School. These meetings will be conducted by the Planning Office and will be open to the public, but will provide only a limited comment period for members of the audience. The Group’s recommendations will be brought to a community meeting for public input, followed by public hearings by the Commission and Council. The Advisory Group hopes to complete its plan before Council adjourns for the summer at the end of June. 
Preparing for the Impact of National Harbor Opening in April
This 300 acre mixed-use development with its 5 hotels and the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center will open in April, 2008. Hoping to capitalize on this prospective new market, the City Council has begun to ready the City for new visitors. The City Council approved docking space for the operation of a new water taxi service that will operate between National Harbor and Old Town Alexandria. At the Mayor’s request, a stakeholders group was convened by the Chamber of Commerce, and the National Harbor Collaborative was formed. In a June report, the Collaborative identified a number of actions they City needed to take before the April ’08 opening.

In November, the Collaborative produced a report that prioritized in 3 tiers of urgency a number of improvements the City needed to make, with a total cost of $1.3 million. Council approved the report and allocated the $1.3 million in funding to implement the recommended actions.

The Budget
On November 2 Council passed a resolution giving the City Manager budget guidance which directed him to prepare a FY ’09 budget that assumes no tax rate increase. Council will receive the Manager’s budget February 12. This will be followed by almost weekly work sessions on the budget and a public hearing on April 14. Final adoption of the budget will take place on May 5.  

Also on November 27, Council voted to establish an ad hoc committee to study whether Council should enact an add-on commercial real estate tax rate. During its 2007 session, the General Assembly authorized localities in Northern Virginia (and Hampton Roads) to adopt a differential real estate tax rate on commercial and industrial property. This new tax would be added onto the existing real property rate. All funds must be used for transportation purposes.

We’ll be hearing back from that committee in time to include the new tax in the ’09 budget, if that is Council’s decision. Arlington and Fairfax are also considering the adoption of an add-on tax.
The Mirant Power Plant
The issue of a new operating permit for Mirant-who will issue it and what pollution limits it will impose-kept the City staff, the residents, and our lawyers and consultants busy all year long. Two draft permits have been released for public comment and formal consideration by the State Air Pollution Control Board, (SAPCB). These will be considered at a public hearing to be held January 25 at 3:30 p.m. at the Holiday Inn on Eisenhower Avenue, and again at the same location on February 7 at 9:30 a.m. The city will continue to work vigorously to strengthen whichever permit is finally approved by the Board.

Also, during its last session, the General Assembly adopted legislation to consolidate three state environmental boards-Air, Water, and Waste Management–into a single Environmental Quality Board, and give all environmental permit authority to the Director of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, (VDEQ). The City and every significant environmental group throughout the state opposed this legislation, because the current structure better serves to protect public health and the environment. As a result, a “reenactment clause” was added to the bill.  In order for this measure to become effective the Assembly will have to approve it again in ’08. This measure is an issue the Council and staff will be watching, and working to defeat.

Three initiatives that I have brought forward already this year and which will probably end up as budget items are aimed at improving the quality of life for our senior residents. The first item would expand the senior taxi program to allow seniors who qualify to be able to use the service for more purposes than just going to the grocery store and medical appointments.
The second item requests that the City begin a long-range plan for our senior residents and to fund an additional staff person if this is needed to ensure that the plan is implemented. Lastly, I have asked the City Manager to look into the possibility of establishing a new program to enable our seniors to work for the City part time-in other than menial jobs-to help defray part of their property tax.

Here’s wishing you a wonderful New Year.

Del Pepper is Alexandria’s vice mayor.