Our view: Quite a mess

Our view: Quite a mess
A photo of past flooding at the intersection of Union and King streets. (Photo Credit/Alexa Epitropoulos)

It’s no secret that Alexandria’s sewer system has long been a mess.

Filth flowing from four sewage outfalls at Alexandria’s waterfront into the Potomac River led Virginia’s General Assembly to pass and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe to sign into law in 2017 a strict timeline for cleaning up this intermittent cesspool.

The difference since then is that flooding from our outdated and undermaintained network of drains and pipes is no longer confined to Old Town. Now parts of Del Ray regularly flood, as do sections of Parkfairfax, homes near Strawberry Run and areas of Rosemont.

In other words, flooding and spillage of dangerous raw sewage into homes and the Potomac River and onto streets during heavy rainfall is a citywide problem. There are several contributing factors to this growing dilemma, among them deferred maintenance, global warming, overdevelopment and repeated environmental degradation.

This is why, when City Manager Mark Jinks proposed a new stormwater fee in 2017 that would cost the average homeowner $140, there was little complaint. Most residents agreed that we had a problem that had been kicked down the road for too long.

Fast forward to earlier this year when city staff proposed, and council ultimately approved, doubling that average $140 fee to $280.

Residents began pushing back against the seemingly random size of the increase, saying doubling the fee was based more on convenience than need, and expressing outrage that almost a quarter of the fee over 10 years was projected to be spent on existing and new city employees.

As resident Katherine Waynick asked in a letter to the editor, “This begs the question, if quality is losing funding, and capacity is still not being adequately addressed, where are our tax dollars going?” The answer in FY2020 was toward personnel, “… combined personnel costs account for $3,754,997 of expenses from a revenue of $12,209,006 – or 30.8%,” Waynick wrote.

Questioning why the city imposed a new fee to provide an already existing service City Council candidate Bill Rossello called the new fee simply a hidden tax.

“It has become increasingly clear that Alexandria has used new fees for some basic services to mask the overall tax burden and reduce tax rate increases. Yet, the one-two punch of taxes and fees has been profound for homeowners,” Rossello wrote.

We think residents throughout the city would be similarly outraged if they fully understood what is taking place with their hard-earned money.

Simply stated, it’s easier politically to sell a new fee, billed as a “user fee,” than it is a hike in the property tax rate. And so, this new tax is being soft-pedaled as something more benign.

You have to hand it to the city. Finding a way to generate $62 million in money for the general budgetary fund over a 10-year period by imposing a new fee and then using it to pay for existing personnel and new hires is clever.

But do we want a local government that is clever, or do we want one that’s transparent? Do we want leadership that obfuscates behind govermentese, and behind the excuse that “everyone else is doing it” as a justification for doing the wrong thing?

Because from where we sit, it is ethically questionable to impose a new fee/tax on already overtaxed residents supposedly to fix one problem and then divert any of it, let alone up to 30% in one year, to pay for existing employees, even if those employees work in departments related to the issue.

This roughly $6.2 million a year over 10 years could be spent on other things – or it could be returned to taxpayers.

For instance, the city’s insistence that it has to impose the environmentally destructive natural channel design on Taylor Run because alternatives are too expensive is simply false. The money is there, it’s just a matter of what our local government chooses to spend it on.

Flooding has not lessened in the three years since the imposition of this new fee, as evidenced by today’s page 1 story, “What’s in the stormwater fee?” Meanwhile, preventable environmental destruction in the name of “restoration” looms ahead. A mess indeed.