Debt is­sues, need for more af­ford­able hous­ing fuel Alexandria coun­cil race

Some of the 11 chal­lengers ques­tion plan­ning de­ci­sions

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS - BY PA­TRI­CIA SUL­LI­VAN pa­tri­cia.sul­li­van@wash­post.com

Alexandria City Coun­cil can­di­date Townsend Van Fleet claims as his an­ces­tor the Amer­i­can Found­ing Fa­ther Ge­orge Ma­son, who also served as a mu­nic­i­pal trustee of this wa­ter­front city in 1754.

Another can­di­date, Fer­nando Tor­rez, is a Bo­li­vian im­mi­grant who says he named his first-born child Alexan­dra, af­ter the city. A third can­di­date, Monique Miles, spent three years work­ing for a le­gal in­sti­tute that seeks tighter re­stric­tions on immigration, although she said she pri­mar­ily fought for the civil rights of low-wage work­ers.

Those are just three of the 11 peo­ple run­ning for a seat on the six-mem­ber coun­cil, which gov­erns a city that is grow­ing younger and more di­verse.

As the Nov. 3 elec­tion draws closer, bat­tle lines are be­ing drawn over taxes and spend­ing, the rate of de­vel­op­ment, the need for more af­ford­able hous­ing and whether the city’s all-Demo­cratic lead­er­ship has forged the right path.

The coun­cil race has been some­what un­der the radar, with most Alexan­dri­ans fo­cused on the may­oral con­test be­tween Demo­cratic nom­i­nee Al­li­son Sil­ber­berg and four-term in­cum­bent mayor Wil­liam “Bill” Euille, who lost the Demo­cratic pri­mary in June but is run­ning as a write-in can­di­date.

But as more can­di­date fo­rums are sched­uled, res­i­dents are start­ing to turn out to com­pare the six Democrats, four Repub­li­cans and one in­de­pen­dent seek­ing the coun­cil seats.

The top six vote-get­ters will win. There are no dis­tricts; each coun­cil mem­ber rep­re­sents the en­tire city.

Five of the six Demo­cratic can­di­dates are in­cum­bents: John Tay­lor Chap­man, Ti­mothy Lo­vain, Redella “Del” Pep­per, Paul Smed­berg and Justin Wil­son. Wil­lie Bai­ley, the sixth Demo­crat, is seek­ing to take the seat va­cated by Sil­ber­berg.

In ad­di­tion to Van Fleet, Tor­rez and Miles, the Repub­li­cans in­clude Bob Wood, a re­tired lieu­tenant gen­eral in the Army who ran un­suc­cess­fully for the coun­cil three years ago.

D. Phil Ce­faratti, a real es­tate agent who un­suc­cess­fully sought a coun­cil seat in 2009, is run­ning as an in­de­pen­dent.

There is no over­ar­ch­ing lo­cal con­tro­versy roil­ing city pol­i­tics as the wa­ter­front-re­de­vel­op­ment is­sue did three years ago.

At a re­cent fo­rum, most can­di­dates agreed with Bai­ley’s pro­posal to in­crease money for af­ford­able hous­ing by re­viv­ing an ear­lier prac­tice of ded­i­cat­ing 1 cent of the prop­erty tax rate to that cause.

They all said that the city has to push de­vel­op­ers harder to cre­ate hous­ing that is af­ford­able to low-in­come res­i­dents and to work­ers who can’t af­ford to live near their jobs in the city.

In­cum­bents tout the city’s rel­a­tive fis­cal health, their own ef­forts to in­crease af­ford­able hous­ing, the ex­pan­sion of spend­ing on early-child­hood ed­u­ca­tion and the deals that have brought the em­ployee-rich Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Na­tional Science Foun­da­tion to the city.

But chal­lengers are point­ing to the city’s in­creas­ing debt, a lop­sided re­liance on residential prop­erty taxes and a sense that not ev­ery­one is welcome at City Hall.

“We need to bring di­ver­sity to the City Coun­cil and add on a busi­ness men­tal­ity,” Tor­rez, who owns an in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy busi­ness, told more than 100 peo­ple at a fo­rum at the Cora Kelly Recre­ation Cen­ter this past week. “We need to ex­pand the tax base.”

As the cam­paign heated up, the lo­cal Demo­cratic Com­mit­tee be­came so up­set at what it de­scribed as “mis­lead­ing and dis­hon­est” as­ser­tions by some Repub­li­can can­di­dates that it re­vived a Web site, truthi­nalexan­dria.com from 2003 to re­pu­di­ate those state­ments.

Ce­faratti, the in­de­pen­dent who has em­pha­sized his in­ter­est in im­prov­ing schools and mak­ing parks and recre­ation pro­grams free, en­dorsed Tor­rez and four Democrats: Chap­man, Smed­berg, Wil­son and Bai­ley. He sug­gested that Pep­per, who has been a coun­cil mem­ber since 1985, be named honorary “coun­cil­woman emer­i­tus.”

Other chal­lengers are not as con­cil­ia­tory.

“Re­store bal­ance, trust and re­spect,” said Wood, an op­po­nent of the wa­ter­front-re­de­vel­op­ment plan who has fo­cused on that and what he de­scribes as other “long-term plan­ning fail­ures” in the city. “The most im­por­tant thing we can do is stop tear­ing down af­ford­able hous­ing we can’t re­place.”

Van Fleet railed against the Demo­cratic Party’s dom­i­nance of city pol­i­tics, telling the racially and eth­ni­cally di­verse au­di­ence at Cora Kelly that “this one-party sys­tem has to come to a screech­ing halt.”

Two weeks ear­lier, Van Fleet told West End res­i­dents at a fo­rum that high-den­sity projects in Alexandria are “ab­so­lutely killing us. . . . The city is us­ing the model of bor­row, build and pray.”

Un­like neigh­bor­ing Ar­ling­ton County, which for years has kept the split of residential and com­mer­cial prop­erty tax rev­enue very close to 50-50, Alexandria is in­creas­ingly re­ly­ing on prop­erty tax rev­enue from home­own­ers to pay for city needs.

If apart­ment build­ing own­ers are con­sid­ered com­mer­cial taxpayers, 57 per­cent of Alexandria’s tax rev­enue comes from the residential prop­erty tax. But if apart­ment own­ers are con­sid­ered residential taxpayers, 75 per­cent of the prop­erty tax comes from residential.

Van Fleet, Wood and Miles have also ham­mered on the city’s in­creas­ing debt and the cost of its debt ser­vice.

Mor­gan Routt, Alexandria’s act­ing bud­get di­rec­tor, said Wed­nes­day that the city had $540 mil­lion in debt at the end of fis­cal 2015, which ended in June. That’s up from $415.7 mil­lion in fis­cal 2011. Debt is ac­cu­mu­lated when the city bor­rows to pay for long-term cap­i­tal as­sets, such as new schools, build­ings and in­fra­struc­ture.

About 10 per­cent of fis­cal 2016’s gen­eral fund bud­get of $649 mil­lion is de­voted to debt ser­vice, Routt said, or about 7 per­cent of the city’s to­tal ex­pen­di­tures, which in­clude grants and rev­enue.

PA­TRI­CIA SUL­LI­VAN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Can­di­dates’ posters sprout out­side a fo­rum. Eleven peo­ple are in the race for seats on the six-mem­ber Alexandria City Coun­cil.

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