City’s legislative director assesses priorities as General Assembly draws to close

City’s legislative director assesses priorities as General Assembly draws to close
AlexRenew’s Boring Machine, Hazel. (Photo/Mark Eaton)

By Mark Eaton

The Virginia General Assembly is scheduled to adjourn on Saturday. If a budget is adopted, legislators will return to Richmond on April 14 to conclude the legislative session by dealing with Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s vetoes, amendments and related matters. 

Alexandria Assistant City Manager and Legislative Director Sarah Graham Taylor has been in Richmond for the 2024 session in a work atmosphere she called “unrelenting.” 

In an interview, Taylor described bills relevant to Alexandrians that are headed to Youngkin to consider and previewed issues that will be worked out as the General Assembly addresses the state budget in the final days of the session. 

Eviction prevention 

Legislators passed several bills that support eviction prevention. These bills are intended to keep tenants from getting to the point of eviction. Some of these bills require certain types of landlords to provide key lease information in languages other than English. 

Alexandria’s government communicates information in English, Arabic, Spanish and Amharic. If enacted, this legislation would require Alexandria landlords that meet criteria established in the legislation to provide, on request, lease cover sheets containing essential information in the same languages. The legislative objective is to prevent renters from signing leases they cannot afford. 

Delegate Elizabeth Bennett-Parker’s (D) bill requires landlords to enter into payment plans for renters who are one month or less in arrears. The eviction prevention bills will go to Youngkin to consider. 

Law enforcement hiring 

Law enforcement agencies in Virginia and nationwide are in a hiring crisis. The General Assembly has passed a bill cosponsored by Delegate Charniele Herring (D), enabling police and sheriff’s departments to hire applicants who have resided in the United States for no less than 60 months and who are eligible for and have applied for citizenship. 

“Especially in a community that has a significant immigrant population, the idea of making it easier to hire people who are of our immigrant communities was something that was really a focus for the city,” Taylor said. “We worked closely with [Alexandria] Sheriff Casey on it.” 

The legislation, which failed in the last session, was endorsed by the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police. It passed both houses and will go to the governor for consideration. 

Combined sewer overflow remediation 

AlexRenew’s tunneling project, RiverRenew, under the Potomac River, is in progress. RiverRenew, which has a price tag of more than $600 million, will substantially reduce the city’s combined sewer overflow in rain events. Hazel is a massive underground boring machine, and is now tunneling north along the Alexandria waterfront. 

According to Taylor, Hazel is about 250 feet from her final destination. 

“We’re super excited. It’s an incredible project,” Taylor said. “And, it was done with a legislatively mandated deadline.” 

When the General Assembly approved the RiverRenew project, it mandated a July 1, 2025, completion date. According to Taylor, the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine compelled an extension of the deadline to July 1, 2026. 

“The really nice thing about that legislation was [that] it was met with great support for the project and recognition that the city and AlexRenew, in particular, have really done the work to meet the deadline, which we knew was an aggressive deadline, and through no fault of their own found themselves a little behind,” Taylor said. “There was really an acknowledgment of the commitment and the work and the creativity and the [effort] to achieve what we all knew was a tough deadline.” 

Taylor said the legislators, including Sens. Scott Surovell and Richard Stuart, who imposed the completion deadline, were supportive of RiverRenew and the extension. Taylor said that the deadline extension was endorsed by the Department of Environmental Quality and the State Water Commission. 

Local environmental impact funds 

Bills authorizing localities to ban gas-powered leaf blowers died in this legislative session. According to Taylor, the concern expressed by legislators was that landscaping companies and other businesses would have to cope with different requirements in different jurisdictions. 

However, a bill carried by Delegate Alfonso Lopez (D) that allows localities to establish environmental impact funds is on its way to Youngkin’s desk. The bill allows localities to use their own money to provide incentives to mitigate local environmental impacts from, for example, landscaping equipment, or to encourage the use of more efficient heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems or appliances. 

“I joked that I wanted to call it the leaf blower buy-back program, but really the idea is to allow localities to use their own money, and maybe draw down federal money or grants, to incentivize residents and businesses to invest in the preferred option,” Taylor said. 

Taylor described this legislation as evidence of the effects of Virginia’s adherence to the Dillon Rule, which states that localities have only the authority expressly granted to them by the state. 

“There are times when we have to come down and ask for authority to do things with our own money and in our own community,” Taylor said. 

Budget ‘horse trading’ 

Taylor said pretty much everything else of particular local interest to Alexandria will be handled through the budget process. 

“That’s everything from how do we fund our schools to how much do our teachers get paid to how much does our law enforcement get paid to what is the balance of investment when it comes to employees that are shared between the commonwealth and localities – folks in our Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, folks in our Health Department and in our courts,” Taylor said. 

Taylor described the budget as containing provisions pertaining to the regional greenhouse gas initiative which provides funding for flood mitigation projects that Alexandria has taken advantage of, funding for the affordable housing trust fund, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority funding and money for a minimum wage increase. 

“The budget is going to be the vehicle for the sports and entertainment authority,” Taylor said. “[It] will stand up the first pieces for the sports and entertainment district [in Potomac Yard.]” 

Taylor described the Potomac Yard project as, “one of a lot of points of negotiation – the budget is really a transactional horse trade.” She said that the operative questions for legislators are, “What do we as members of the General Assembly want and what do we want to bring home?” 

Taylor described the arena project as, “the biggest point of horse trading with the governor” for legislators with priorities that range from toll relief in Hampton Roads to WMATA funding in Northern Virginia to cannabis markets to slot-like betting machines called skill games that provide a revenue stream to bars, restaurants, gas stations and other businesses.