Debt issues, need for more affordable housing fuel Alexandria council race
Some of the 11 challengers question planning decisions
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.
Candidates’ posters sprout outside a forum. Eleven people are in the race for seats on the six-member Alexandria City Council.