By Erich Wagner (File photo)
City Manager Mark Jinks announced last week that as Alexandria faces an avalanche of infrastructure needs, he ordered plans to renovate the Chinquapin Park Recreation Center to accommodate an Olympic-sized swimming pool to be put on hold.
The move comes as part of what Jinks described as a wholesale re-evaluation of the city’s infrastructure spending priorities, which he said was necessitated by what he described as “the greatest level of challenge … in decades.”
Jinks cited city council’s decision to accelerate the implementation of federally mandated sewer upgrades, Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley’s budget that calls for an increase of $200 million in capital spending over 10 years compared to last year’s plan and an increase of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s capital allocation of $26 million, all meant that officials needed to reprioritize upcoming city projects.
“Any time you see the numbers and the needs in- crease like we have, you have to go back and see what you said you were going to do and ask, ‘Are those still the priorities?’” Jinks said. “No decisions have been made, but … we’re not going to be able to afford everything.”
In the current fiscal year, the Chinquapin pool project has been allocated $4.5 million. Jinks said he hit the pause button because the city was preparing to spend $1.4 million on an architecture and engineering design contract. And he cancelled $25,000 in spending slated to go toward replacing two wooden city entryway signs with stone upgrades.
“The pool’s cost to the city is roughly $20 million [in total], and it adds swim lanes in addition to renovations to the current building,” Jinks said. “But given our current capital circumstance, we should put it on pause for now until we go through the prioritization process.”
Bill Rivers, chairman of Advocates for Alexandria Aquatics, a group that committed $2.5 million in private fundraising toward the project, worried the move could hurt his group’s effort. He noted that pushing the pool project back only one year would mean the cost would increase by nearly $2.4 million.
“With Mark’s decision, he’s undercut us,” Rivers said. “We spent four years building up the credibility of the city that the project would actually occur for potential donors. We were in active negotiations with someone for $1.5 million of the $2.5 million … and his decision led to a reassessment by the fund raiser and by another donor about whether they should go ahead with their donations.”
Rivers said that although he remains confident the Chinquapin project still will be a part of the city’s capital budget next year, he fears there could be a chilling effect for other public-private partnership efforts.
“To come up, days before the design contract is signed, with the idea that it may not even occur, what it does is tell someone who wants to work with the city, to commit to do significant investment from the private sector, is [we’re not serious],” he said. “It undercuts us.”
The news from Jinks has prompted a broader discussion of prioritization among city councilors. Mayor Allison Silberberg said that she still is committed to the pool renovations, although the time frame is up for debate.
“Some things, we’re going to have to focus on in the short term, and some things perhaps we can wait on,” she said. “The fact is, we won’t be able to do all that we want to do, as quickly as we want to do it. A lot of these matters have been — frankly — deferred for a long time.”
Vice Mayor Justin Wilson suggested that, given the city’s double triple-A bond rating and notably low debt load when compared with other localities, council could raise its debt limit to pay for its various needs more quickly.
“We have among the lowest debt burdens in the region, and we’re far below the median of similar jurisdictions that are double triple-A rated, so there’s a reasonable argument to be made that we are not using debt at a level that is proper and appropriate,” Wilson said. “But there’s a trade-off. Increasing the amount of debt means paying more in debt service, but the taxpayers of today are paying far more than their fair share for the cost of capital expenditures that will benefit people two or three generations down the line than they should be.
“Back during the worst of the recession, we were the other way, where we had almost everything going on the credit card. But now we’re at a place where we can have a conversation about whether we can increase our debt limits in an appropriate and reasoned process.”
But Silberberg said she was resistant to such an effort.
“I am concerned about what it might mean in terms of adding more debt capacity, when we area already taking on a great deal of debt with regard to [the Potomac Yard] Metro [station], although we believe economic development will come as a result of that stop, which will help bring in more revenue on the commercial side,” she said. “[We] will have to take a good hard look at city services, and in terms of debt, I am uncomfortable with moving the goal posts, if you will, the debt limits.”