Mayor discusses fall legislative priorities

Mayor discusses fall legislative priorities
City Council's Sept. 13 legislative meeting.

By Olivia Anderson |

City Council held its first 2022-2023 legislative meeting on Tuesday evening, in which a discussion took place about the General Assembly’s recently granted permissive authority and preparation of upcoming docket items.

Ahead of the meeting, Mayor Justin Wilson shared with the Times his overall thoughts surrounding the upcoming year and what items council is planning on tackling this fall.

“I’m excited. This is kind of the year when really things get done,” Wilson said. “If you think about the three-year cycle of the City Council, we spend the first year getting used to how you all work together … and certainly the last year is dominated by elections unfortunately. So late first year, middle of the second year – that’s the meat of the council term. That’s when we do the big stuff, that’s when we do a lot of the heavy lifting.”

According to Wilson, this fall will include a full plate of projects. One particularly relevant topic is the Metro shutdown, which went into effect last weekend. Wilson said council will spend the next few months working through the impacts of the shutdown and managing the overall process as the city prepares to finally open the Potomac Yard Metro Station – a project that has been in talks for approximately 25 years, and should come to fruition around Thanksgiving.

Another item he anticipates council discussing is fair housing. The city partnered with several jurisdictions on a regional fair housing study, which is almost complete and will likely come before council with recommendations in the coming months.

“I suspect some of those are going to be pretty significant recommendations around how we make our housing access fair and equitable here in the community,” Wilson said.

The issue of land use, especially when it comes to the office market, is also something council will discuss in the coming months. The pandemic caused many people to start working remotely a few years ago, and Wilson said that conversations about how – or if – to transition back into offices began a few years ago and will continue into the future.

“The assumptions that people who have been working from home for the last two-and-a-half years are suddenly going to wake up and decide they want to be back in the office is pretty naive,” Wilson said. “… It’s not a new thing for us to put policies in place to try to help ease transition and ease conversion activity for land use. But I think that’s going to be something that continues to accelerate and going to have more urgency to it as we go forward.”

The city is planning to complete two collective bargaining agreements with the fire union and the police union – the first two in Virginia’s public sector since 1977. Once City Manager Jim Parajon reaches a tentative agreement with each party, the resolution will go to council for approval and final passage. Council will then engage the community in conversations about the potential costs of those agreements.

Additionally, City Council’s fall docket will include ongoing conversations with the School Board about capital and facilities, council’s own budget process and the future of bonus height in the city.

At Tuesday’s meeting, councilors discussed outcomes of the 2022 General Assembly session, one of which included granting permissive authority to the city for 15 laws in various subject areas.

Because Virginia is a “Dillon Rule” state, meaning the state does not recognize inherent local government powers, localities are limited to what the state statute expressly grants them. At the General Assembly’s most recent session, 15 bills were signed into law that give permissive – rather than mandatory – authority if the city so chooses to exercise it and implement the laws.

The newly approved laws relate to a number of topics like surplus revenues, tax rates, property tax, local volunteer credits, land preservation, solar photovoltaic projects, alarm systems, vehicle parking, cemetery registration, tree replacements and exhaust systems.

According to Sarah Taylor, the city’s legislative director, staff reviewed each individual law and provided recommendations based on what they believe would best serve the community.

“[We looked] at these new opportunities for permissive authority, see what it would take to implement them, get staff input on the implementation impacts – whether this is something that would be valuable to the city, what the staff work would be required in order to implement it here in the community, whether it’s something we’ve asked for in the past, just give some context for what this permissive authority would be,” Taylor said.

During discussion, Councilor Kirk McPike expressed support for HB 450/SB 278, which prohibits parking vehicles that are unable to receive an electric charge or that are not in the process of charging in spaces clearly reserved for charging electric vehicles. Violations are subject to civil penalties of up to $25.

“It’s not much, but the $25 fine … is something that we as a council would be interested in pursuing,” McPike said. “I think that is a real opportunity to … enact our priorities and state our values here.”

Other items were more vague. Councilor Alyia Gaskins raised concerns with HB 907/SB 526, which would allow the city to require those with battery-charged fence security systems to obtain an alarm company permit and pay the corresponding fee. Localities would be able to inspect the security system and issue a citation warning and noncompliance penalty of up to $500.

Gaskins questioned whether other localities have taken advantage of this authority as well as which departments would be responsible for maintaining the registry and enforcing compliance.

Taylor responded that staff did not come with a specific actionable recommendation because they are still engaging in “ongoing conversations,” specifically related to code enforcements, fire marshals, the police department and potentially the Department of Community and Human Services. The goal, she said, is to know where the battery-operated fences are located to ensure there is an opportunity for quick emergency access. She said that to her knowledge, no one has taken advantage of this law yet.

“It definitely made sense from a practical sense, and safety and enforcement. It was just a little confusing to me recognizing all these different departments – where something like this would be housed, how you’d actually implement it, and then who’s responsible,” Gaskins said. “… I’m curious to learn more about it, but it seems like one where there’s a lot of nuances for.”

Councilor Sarah Bagley highlighted several items that reference budgetary impacts. She asked staff to clarify when exactly council would receive this information, noting that the budget retreat is set for November.

“I just wanted to express support for the indication that staff is going to evaluate the impacts of the surviving spouse tax issue … and I look forward to the recommendation,” Bagley said.

In response, Parajon said staff would not take action on any item unless council expresses interest in exploring, sharing, or reviewing it more deeply. Wilson added that certain items, such as tax-related laws, wouldn’t be able to go into effect until next budget year anyway, so a budget memo detailing the financial impact would suffice.

Council did not make any final decisions on the 15 new laws; they will instead review the information and direct staff at a later date.

“This was our effort to give you all the information you need to take back and digest and then come back to staff as a body with specific actionable direction on the ones you would like us to take advantage of and move forward either on the policy change, or make sure it’s built into the budget process, or direct us to draft an ordinance when an ordinance is required,” Taylor said.

Council will meet next on Saturday for the first 2022-23 public hearing.