Our View: Council should apply a business model to government spending decisions

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Our View: Council should apply a business model to government spending decisions
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(File photo)

When is the city justified in spending taxpayers’ money and when is it not?

Two items that came up late in Tuesday’s city council legislative meeting begged this question. The thought-provoking items were near the end of a very lengthy docket and concerned plans for a new 50-meter pool at Chinquapin Recreation Center and the need for repairs to City Hall. The pool project is currently estimated to cost $22.8 million and City Hall renovations $56 million.

City spending is not necessarily a zero-sum game, but the reality is that there’s only so much money to distribute without taxing residents out of their homes or businesses out of town. The city has various master plans for different sectors and a 10-year capital budget — but there are competing demands within these plans.

So how do our elected officials decide what passes muster? Perhaps they decide like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said about obscenity, “I know it when I see it.” While that may have worked for Justice Stewart, it seems too arbitrary to use broadly.

A better approach to government spending might be to apply the metaphor local entrepreneur David Steinberg developed a few years back for his start-up company. Each time employees presented him with a spending request he asked, “Is it air, water or food?” Air was spending that was immediately vital for the company’s survival, water was something critical but not quite as urgent, and food was a necessary item but one that could be used over time to grow the business.

Viewed through that lens, it is difficult to justify spending almost $23 million in tax dollars on the 50-meter Chinquapin pool, if one must choose between this project and other infrastructure needs. The project is lovely in design, has come down in cost thanks to creative re-imagining and would be a great venue for not just city but regional elite swimmers. But it’s simply not vital compared with competing, urgent spending needs.

The most logical and equitable way to approach Chinquapin would be to develop either a public-private partnership or to turn the new pool into a nonprofit. In either scenario, the city could provide the land and plans that have already been paid for, and either a nonprofit capital campaign could be launched for the building funds, or a for-profit entity could be partnered with to build and run the venue.

Renovating City Hall, on the other hand, is clearly important to the long-term vitality of Alexandria’s historic district, which is the engine that drives our tourism industry. At the meeting, staff said the building currently grades out as an “F” in usability. That’s simply unacceptable.

City Hall is the very image of Alexandria. It is the backdrop to our famous farmers market and to political rallies. It is across the street from the Ramsay Visitors Center where tourists congregate. Renovating it must become a priority. While not quite “air,” it’s certainly “water.”

Our elected officials must make many difficult choices that involve weighing rival demands on scarce resources. But the reality is not all competing choices are equal, and not all projects must be funded with tax dollars. The Chinquapin project is one that lends itself to a creative partnership approach that does not involve further government spending. City Hall needs to be renovated, and soon.

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