To the editor:
“Bread and Circuses” is a phrase used since ancient Rome to describe a brand of public policy where the masses are kept happy by superficial means. In Rome, the answer was literal in the form of free food and entertainment. In present-day Alexandria, it seems the answer lies in flashy numbers and superficial “solutions” to large and complex problems.
By now we know that city staff recommended doubling the stormwater utility fee paid by residents and businesses throughout the city. For many, trials of the past 18 months prompt visceral reactions.
We understand all too well that climate change is causing a rise in what was once rare rain events, but we have grown tired of the effects being exacerbated by an insufficient infrastructure that has been neglected for decades.
Residents were hopeful that the implementation of the SWU fee would bring about noticeable action, but, two years later, there is little to show for it, despite collecting nearly $20 million. Instead, residents have been left stranded holding the receipts for tens of thousands in damages. Others have come perilously close to loss of life.
In addition to doubling the SWU fee, the increase would only support eight capacity projects and the Hooffs Run project. This is less than 10% of the 90 known issues highlighted in the 2016 City of Alexandria Storm Sewer Capacity Analysis. Making matters worse, this funding would be spread over the next 10 years so even residents whose areas are to be addressed will have to endure years of additional flooding.
In other words, despite a 400% increase in funding, resulting in an estimated $110 million collected, by 2030 only eight capacity projects will be funded city-wide.
This begs the question, if quality is losing funding, and capacity is still not being adequately addressed, where are our tax dollars going?
In the current CIP Stormwater Management Budget adopted for FY21-30, the Department of Transportation and Environmental Services and Department of Project Implementation personnel costs account for $44,059,240 of the total $200,949,482 estimated revenue, or 21.9%. In other words, more than $1 of every $5 raised from the SWU fee from FY21-30 is estimated to be paying for the operating cost of current employees.
The approved FY20 figures aren’t any better, as combined personnel costs account for $3,754,997 of expenses from a revenue of $12,209,006 – or 30.8%. So, in FY20, approximately $1.20 of every $4 raised by the SWU fee went to personnel.
It is discouraging to learn that T&ES and DPI staff salaries were moved under a funding mechanism that is contingent on revenue from a recently created fee sold to residents as a way to pay for unfunded mandates. These positions are not new and have always been needed.
We need more people to work on smaller projects, but also need large sums of money to address city-wide capacity issues that require extensive work by outside contractors.
By moving salaries out of the general fund and under this fee, we may be able to better address smaller projects in-house but by doing so greatly limit the work that can be done on larger issues that directly affect hundreds, if not thousands of residents.
It seems that the discussion is being manipulated into a narrative of residents vs. city workers and that may be the most frustrating of all as we recognize how vital these members are to our community. For years residents have been calling out for help – to clear our drains, inspect the culverts and to make the needed repairs to provide relief from crumbling and undersized infrastructure.
Instead of allocating new funding sources directly to those needs, the city shuffled line items within the budget to make way for other items in the general fund. This is unacceptable.
Before you double our storm fee, please consider reallocating funds so that money raised can actually fund the desperately needed fixes that were, and still seem to be, largely unfunded.
-Katherine Waynick, Alexandria