Alexandria officials uncertain over federal hiring freeze

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Alexandria officials uncertain over federal hiring freeze
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By Erich Wagner (File photo)

City officials said they are confident that Alexandria would not be included in so-called “sanctuary jurisdictions” targeted for the loss of federal grant funding in an executive order signed last week by President Donald Trump.

But they fear broad local economic impacts as a result of a White House memorandum implementing a 90-day federal hiring freeze, which they said could portend further cutbacks to spending by the U.S. government.

The executive order entitled “Enhancing public safety in the interior of the United States” says “jurisdictions that willfully refuse to comply with [the federal immigration statute] are not eligible to receive federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes.”

City spokesman Craig Fifer said that while the order leaves it up to the secretary of homeland security to determine which jurisdictions are “sanctuaries,” local officials are confident Alexandria won’t be included in any crackdown. The city received $56.2 million in federal funds for fiscal 2017.

“We comply with all federal and state immigration laws, so we don’t appear to be affected with regard to funding,” Fifer said. “While it’s hard to research a hypothetical, and we don’t know what kind of scenarios are going to play out, what we can say overall is that it doesn’t appear this executive order would implicate federal funding for Alexandria to the extent that it focuses on compliance with current federal immigration law.”

Vice Mayor Justin Wilson said action by city council in 2007 codified that city police won’t ask people that they interact with about their immigration status, but the city still complies with federal immigration law in that the sheriff’s office hands over jail inmates when requested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“The context was in response to what Prince William County was doing, when they were taking their police officers and having them out stopping people on the street, inquiring about their status and detaining them,” Wilson said. “We simply said, ‘We’re not going to do that.’”

But one directive from the Trump administration has provoked local worries. Wilson said the implications of a presidential memorandum ordering agencies to freeze hiring for 90 days until a study of federal spending can take place could hurt Alexandria and the entire D.C. region economically.

“If you just look at the numbers, the sequester was a cut of $1.2 trillion over 10 years and everyone went nuts, but now we’re talking about potentially $1.2 trillion a year,” Wilson said. “When you think about what that does to the region’s GDP, and what it does to the real estate market, the potential is very, very, very dramatic.”

Wilson said he wants city staff to develop an “emergency plan” in case the Trump administration advances a budget that dramatically cuts federal employment, which he said would have a clear impact on Alexandria’s economic activity and tax revenues.

“There’s probably three areas I’d focus on: first, we have to deal with the fiscal piece and have appropriate financial contingencies, almost like how you prepare for a natural disaster, and that’s the easy stuff,” he said. “The second aspect would focus on economic development, developing incentive packages and things like that, basically accelerating what we’re trying to do already with the diversification of the economy so that we have less dependency on federal spending.

“And then looking at our land use initiatives and efforts, we can accelerate that.”

Mayor Allison Silberberg also noted that the change in government leadership is a reminder that Alexandria needs to become less reliant on government jobs.

“There will certainly be a potential impact, and we’re still feeling the effects of sequestration,” Silberberg said. “I’m certainly very focused on diversifying the economy so that we’re not so tied to the ups and downs of the federal government. Having said that, I know that so many people have dedicated their lives to making a difference for our country … and so I am concerned about the well being of the residents of our city and what it means in terms of their livelihood.”

Dak Hardwick, board chairman of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce, said he hasn’t heard much from local businesses about the potential impact of the hiring freeze yet. But he said any cut in federal spending ends up having an impact on the local level.

“Any time when you have a reduction or elimination of jobs, you have less people wanting to come to the area and be a part of this region and Alexandria specifically, although it’s a regional problem,” he said. “The message we tell businesses is to stay the course, stay with your plan and function the best you can, and then adjust as the circumstances change. Because at this point, there’s nothing tangible to react to yet.”

But Stephanie Landrum, president and CEO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership, said that while she worries about the economic impact of a cutback in federal spending, leaders should not jump to conclusions just yet.

“While I think we are definitely watching all the different changes happening on the federal level as a community whose economy is certainly tied if not dependent on federal spending, whether it’s households who are employed by the federal government or businesses here that also rely on the federal government, we’re definitely watching,” Landrum said.

“But when you look at history, when the federal government shrinks, the contracting industry tends to grow. So maybe the silver lining is that we might see some expansion in the contracting markets, and Alexandria businesses tend to be pretty well positioned on that front.”

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