Alexandria readies for 2023 General Assembly

Alexandria readies for 2023 General Assembly
City Council's Tuesday meeting.

By Olivia Anderson |

COVID-19 recovery efforts, economic development and compensation philosophies were just some of the topics discussed at City Council’s Tuesday legislative meeting as part of Alexandria’s proposed legislative package for the 2023 General Assembly Session.

Each session, the city works with state lawmakers to create the necessary legal framework, funding and authority in order to advocate for Alexandria’s budget and policy goals. The draft legislative package is the culmination of many proposals from City Council, staff, boards, commissions and members of the community.

This year, the final draft was crafted around the six key priorities City Council adopted in March, intended to create a cohesive framework for policy decisions in the upcoming fiscal year. These include providing diverse housing opportunities, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting youth and families, fostering economic development, developing a compensation philosophy and defining the city’s community engagement approach.

Sarah Taylor, the city’s legislative director, said at council’s Tuesday meeting that staff received 63 legislative proposals. She noted that “all of them in some way, shape or form” are captured in the final draft package, either as a legislative principle or as a specifically enumerated legislative priority.

“[It was done] with the idea that our legislative priorities and principles should be tied into our policy and budget priorities for the city,” Taylor said. “And creating that nexus ensures that what we are focused on are things that are advancing your priorities and making sure those programs, those policies and those budget items get the support they need from Richmond.”

For instance, the first principle, or lens, of the city’s official 2023 statement is to identify and overcome intentional and unintentional barriers to the city’s systems and services. This includes many previous proposals that called for equity – from criminal justice reform to more diverse accessible modes of transportation to increasing healthcare access for all residents.

Another lens is providing equitable access to a healthy environment and taking proactive measures to mitigate and adapt to future climate change. This includes efforts to plan for and reduce urban and inland flooding, expand the city’s tree canopy and increase recycling.

Some draft principles were taken directly from the city’s six priorities, such as providing diverse opportunities in the community – which supports the local authority to plan, zone and enforce land use regulations without restricting zoning processes – and COVID-19 recovery. The latter includes an expansive list of goals, such as workforce development, promoting the well-being of residents, behavioral health supports and increasing the number of psychiatric beds available.

Another principle is to support youth and families in the community. The measure includes pieces like increasing funding for K-12 education, ensuring that schools are safe and free of health hazards, gun safety measures, marijuana protection and additional investment in the Virginia Preschool Initiative.

Some lenses are broader, such as fostering development in the community, which Taylor said works to create sustainable and equitable development, diversify revenue and allow greater investment in infrastructure. There is also the principle of developing and implementing a compensation philosophy, defining the city’s community engagement approach and providing core government services efficiently and accomplishing the city’s identified priorities.

Councilor Sarah Bagley called attention to the “amorphousness” of the principles and lenses concept, suggesting that some are clearer than others.

“Something I’m quite proud of is the priorities this council established. I think in doing so, we weren’t quite as intentional with the lenses concept,” Bagley said. “… Perhaps in our next retreat, we think about that: ‘What are these lenses intended to do, and if we know what their intentions are, should we think about maybe selecting new ones or refining them in some way?’”

When it comes to the enumerated priorities, Taylor noted that while there is some overlap between the broader principles, these bring focus to the community’s highest needs and largest concerns.

“These are really the very specific actionable items that will probably be individual bills or already [existing] individual bills that we are working on or that we intend to support in a significant way,” Taylor said.

Depending on the budget items, support might look like funding for some priorities and authority for others. For example, the first priority, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, proposes legislation to provide Alexandria with the authority to establish a locally administered health department to “ensure the city’s investment in its public health system is focused on and responsive to the needs of all Alexandrians,” according to the draft.

“It’s something that’s actually been brought up several times in discussions of the way health departments are operating here in the Commonwealth, and it is something that was on our list to ask for authority to do,” Taylor said. “In asking for authority to do that, it really just begins the process for that evolution and that transition. It’s not something that happens overnight.”

Loudoun County and Prince William County have recently asked for similar legislation, and Arlington County and Fairfax County already have locally administered health departments.

City Councilor Canek Aguirre questioned what specifically this newfound authority would look like, to which Taylor responded that the city would contract with the Virginia Department of Health to provide services in the community. The department would remain funded by the state, but would give the city authority to spend that money as it sees fit.

“It gives us that additional flexibility on the things that are not mandated to do them in a way that is responsive to our community and is best fit for our community,” Taylor said.

Mayor Justin Wilson emphasized that the goal is to improve health service to the community, and would require many further discussions with the General Assembly. He also called attention to the change in state leadership over the years.

“In most administrations we’ve had a very good partnership with the state health department and they have provided us with a lot of authority, certainly involvement as it relates to the selection of the health director,” Wilson said. “Because of the nature of our subsidy and the relationship that we have with the department, a lot of that is something that has been extended as a courtesy, and not necessarily something that is required. So we are susceptible to leadership changes in Richmond … so I think this opens up the conversation. There would obviously be a lot of dialogue required with Richmond to move in this direction.”

Requesting such authority would not require the city to utilize the authority, nor would it restrict the city to a timeframe for implementation.

Aguirre expressed support for the item, while also highlighting the importance of maintaining communication with the state to ensure a smooth transition.

“I think this is a step in the right direction. We definitely have to take our time to dot our i’s and cross our t’s and everything, but I’m excited for this,” Aguirre said.

Also under the COVID-19 recovery umbrella is protecting and increasing investment in workforce development initiatives and in mitigating and recovering from student learning loss.

With the housing diversity priority, the city is specifically asking for an increase in funding for the Virginia Housing Trust Fund – in order to let localities more fully address important housing assistance programs, projects and homelessness prevention efforts – and eviction prevention efforts through legislation to reinstate the 14-day pay or quit notice and simplifying the Unlawful Detainer Form.

The third priority, supporting youth and families, includes specific requests to increase funding for the state’s childcare subsidy program and enact changes to increase participation of childcare providers in the program, as well as legislative efforts to better the outcomes for children in the child welfare system such as impacting reunification rates and reducing disproportionality and entries. The fourth, fostering economic development, requests legislation to preserve existing local authority and funding for localities and funding for flood protection, including expansion of the Virginia Coastal Resilience Technical Advisory Committee.

The fifth priority is to develop a compensation philosophy, which seeks legislation for the Alexandria Police Department and Alexandria Sheriff’s Department to more easily recruit and hire non-citizens on the path to citizenship, and restore full funding for the Cost of Competing Adjustment, which would ensure that school salaries remain competitive. Finally, the city identified the need to define its community engagement approach through a request for legislation for more electronic participation by members of public advisory bodies; for replacing the word “handicap” in Virginia Code with people-first language; and for removing the requirement that members of the Historical Restoration and Preservation Commission secure a $10,000 surety bond in order to serve on the commission.

“That’s what we’ve turned the laundry list into – something that big picture captures a lot things that we believe in, a lot of things that we feel very strongly about, and then several specific items that we will work on in specific pieces of legislation in order to achieve these council priorities, affix those lenses of equity and environmental justice and transparency and accountability on the policies and budget efforts moving forward,” Taylor said.

On Nov. 18, Gov. Glenn Youngkin unveiled his “Make Virginia Home” Plan, which aims to “promote increasing the supply of attainable, affordable and accessible housing across the Commonwealth,” according to a news release.

The city’s draft legislative package includes a placeholder section in the diverse housing priority in reference to Youngkin’s new plan. Wilson suggested that this could be an opportunity to find common ground with the administration, such as Youngkin’s proposal to intentionally include housing in economic development and attraction efforts, as well as his proposal to prioritize state housing money for jurisdictions that adopt pro-growth land use policies.

He also disagreed with several state proposals, like repercussions for slow-moving permit approvals, but concluded that overall there are many chances to negotiate and work with the General Assembly.

“Bottom line is [that] I think there are some opportunities here, so I’m hopeful that both in the package, in advance of the session as well as during the session, we can seek those out and try to figure out how we can get some good legislation passed in the session. There will probably be some things we oppose but there might be some opportunities,” Wilson said.

Councilor Kirk McPike made a motion to receive the docket item, which Vice Mayor Amy Jackson seconded. The item is set for final passage at Saturday’s public hearing.