Our View: A spending wish list

Our View: A spending wish list
Alexandria City Hall. (file photo)

Alexandria’s almost $60 million from this year’s COVID-19 federal relief bill, officially called the American Rescue Plan Act, presents our city with an unusual opportunity to spend a lump sum of “free” money. Of course, because ARPA is taxpayer funded, this money is most definitely not free, but it’s money the City of Alexandria gets to spend that came from federal, rather than local, tax collections, and that isn’t part of our ongoing budget.

It’s no surprise that the city’s spending wish list is long and ranges from the significant, such as emergency support grants and flood mitigation, to rather trivial items, such as sliding room partitions.

The community input survey that staff presented at the June 22 City Council legislative meeting revealed that the broad category most Alexandrians want the money spent on is infrastructure, which received support from 20% of respondents. This is no surprise, given the city’s severe and worsening flooding woes.

Flood mitigation projects are part of the city’s longer-term capital improvements budget, but this money presents an enormous opportunity to jump-start those efforts. In addition to work on specific projects, maybe some of the funding could go directly to residents to help them pursue flooding fixes on their own properties, problems that have been exacerbated by the city’s inadequate stormwater system.

There are two broad flood mitigation categories in Tier 1 and Tier 2 of the city’s “ARPA Proposals by Scored Tier” document: “Channel and Floodway Maintenance” in Tier 1 and “Stormwater State of Good Repair & Resiliency” in Tier 2. The former would consist of cleaning debris from Four Mile Run and Holmes Run and is considered shovel ready, while the latter would include cleanup and structural repairs to Hooffs Run culvert, but would take a bit more planning and preparation.

The category with the second-most support for funding in the community survey, at 14%, was “Business Recovery & Workforce.” We believe the most worthwhile item on the city’s list is a Tier 2 proposal called the “Re-employment and Upskilling Project.” This initiative would expand a workforce development pilot previously funded by the CARES Act “to get people back to work with increased skill levels and wages.”

The broad category with the third-most support from the community, at 13%, was “Health and Social Services,” and many specific items on the city’s tiered list address this, from those providing emergency support to food security. A portion of the ARPA funds should absolutely go toward some of these initiatives.

While there are many worthwhile items on the tiered list, we are struck by one that is glaringly absent: Funding for police body cameras.

Given last year’s murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and the subsequent eruption of protests and violence in many cities, body cameras for police officers should be a priority everywhere – and this ARPA money is a good way to initiate that effort here. Body cameras on police officers are a win-win proposition, protecting both those with whom police interact and the officers themselves.

Body cameras allow the interaction between officer and resident to be recorded in its entirety, providing context and proof should accounts about an encounter later differ.

Alexandria’s police force is well regarded and professional. We have not had incidents here in recent years like those that have rocked other parts of the United States. Yet, our City Council this year has already created a police community review board – without any voting members with backgrounds in law enforcement – and has removed police officers from schools over the objections of teachers, administrators and many parents and students, overruling Alexandria’s elected School Board.

If council is really concerned about managing the relationship between police and city residents, it will fund body cameras, if not from ARPA funds, then in our next city budget.