Setting the city council agenda

Setting the city council agenda

By Erich Wagner (File photo)

Included in the issues that city councilors will address after returning from summer recess are improving competition for high-speed Internet access as well as introducing a multiyear budget process.

While the Alexandria City Council will begin preliminary planning for the budget when the legislative session kicks off September 10, Mayor Bill Euille said that he wants to discuss adopting a two-year budget process. Taking a longer view could make financial planning easier and more accurate, he said.

City Councilor John Chapman said the benefits of multiyear budget planning outweigh the potential drawbacks. For example, he expects it will push city agencies and outside organizations dependent on local tax dollars to prepare properly or risk being left out in the cold.

“I think the downside to it can be that if you don’t get money, you don’t get it for two years instead of one,” he said. “We might have more competition and urgency from partners or agencies surrounding the money, and I also think that will hopefully push groups, agencies or partners to develop some outcomes and expectations of outcomes when we do give out funding.

“It forces us to think a little bit longer into the future, so I’m for it.”

But Vice Mayor Allison Silberberg will need a bit of convincing before agreeing to replace a process that city leaders have relied on for decades.

“That came up last year at the retreat, and I think [City Councilor] Justin [Wilson] brought it up,” Silberberg said. “[We’ve] always had the system we have, so I’m curious to hear about the pros and cons of each. I’m not wedded to switching and not against it either. … I’d like to talk to economists and see what other well-managed cities are doing.

“Personally, I want to make sure we’re careful about decisions like that.”

Along with multiyear budget planning, Euille also wants to improve broadband and fiber-optic Internet access in Alexandria.

“We need to be active in the effort to expand broadband throughout the city,” he said. “It could be through pilot programs, or it might be specific to certain neighborhoods, but we need to see what we can do to make it a reality.

“It’s long overdue. We keep getting businesses and others asking, ‘Why can’t we have fiber?’ And if we keep waiting for others to bring it, we probably won’t ever get there.”

Silberberg believes the best way of promoting investment in tech infrastructure could be through competition. She said in some parts of the city it seems like cable and Internet options are “Comcast or bupkis.”

“It seems to me that in the future we’ll probably have Wi-Fi everywhere, then perhaps that is an option that the city should consider down the road,” she said. “But in the meantime we need more competition.”

But Euille isn’t the only city official presenting an agenda this fall. Chapman said he’s preparing legislation — mirroring a bill passed this summer in Prince George’s County — that provides the city with the first right of refusal to purchase, or enables local nonprofits to purchase, properties for use as affordable housing.

“It’s going to be different [from the Prince George’s County legislation], but I’ve been sitting down with city staff to see what we think we can get done,” Chapman said. “[I’m] working with the development community on it to find a happy medium there … as well as empower some of the nonprofits to make sure that they can have the strategic plans in place to take advantage of this.”

For Silberberg, she wants to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start businesses in Alexandria, possibly by providing a roadmap showcasing the necessary steps before opening a store.

“One person told me that he had walked in to handle one thing and then found out by chance, ‘Did you handle this or that?’ And he found out at the last second — just before his grand opening — that he needed to do one or two things in addition to that,” she said. “He said it was very stressful.”

Silberberg also wants to set up a “conservation shield” for city parkland and open space, partially in light of the buzz surrounding the aborted proposal to lease Hensley Park to private developers for a sports and entertainment complex.

“As we become even more dense than we already are, it’s all the more critical that we have that open space so that people can reflect and get out of their four walls,” she said.

Councilors also will grapple with such lingering concerns this fall as how to regulate food trucks in Alexandria as well as zoning and development issues like the city housing master plan.