I grew up watching the Kentucky Derby. The Run for Roses. It was a blast. I would always be invited to these big Derby parties and remember the great jockey outfits, hats, bow ties, derby pie, and the twin spires of Churchill Downs. As I got older, I learned many more traditions of the Derby, namely mint juleps, bourbon, and of course, betting on the horses.
It’s from the Derby I first learned about the trifecta. Pick all the horses in their order of finish and you win more money. Easy, right?
When I bet on the horses, I never win the trifecta. I typically get a win, place or show, but can never line up all three horses in order. Anyone who knows anything about betting on horses will tell you if you hit a trifecta, you’re doing pretty well. Count your blessings, collect your winnings, have a few (more) bourbons, and walk away happy.
In Alexandria, we’ve hit the trifecta. Only in this trifecta, when you walk up to collect your winnings from the teller, you actually have to hand over more money. A lot more money. Because you actually lost. Luck be a lady? I don’t think so.
What is Alexandria’s trifecta?
It’s the school capacity crisis, raw sewage dumping into the Potomac River after each rainstorm, and a city budget that struggles to meet (and in some cases can no longer meet) all of the demands of the citizenry. The first two are huge bills our city has to find a way to pay. The third is the reality that the cost of good government is quickly outpacing the money available to pay for everything we want.
This is definitely a trifecta we didn’t want to win, but we won it anyway. Big time. Lucky us.
Let’s look at each of the horses that won our trifecta. First, school capacity. Let’s not mince words here – our school system is in a full-blown facilities crisis. It is literally bursting at the seams with students. We have reached a point where school facilities can no longer accommodate the number of students that want to attend our schools. School population is growing and growing with no end in sight. Teachers are teaching in closets and hallways.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Closets and hallways.
Any reasonable person will tell you teachers can overcome most obstacles to get their students to learn. They spend their own money on classroom supplies and dedicate countless hours to make sure their students walk out of school ready to take on the world. But what teachers can’t do is build more classrooms. Even the School Board can’t do that alone. That duty (and it is a duty) falls to our city government. And while the City Council and some members of the community debate the finer points of the location of open space and trees on school property, Alexandria’s students – our future – are relegated to closets, hallways and trailers to get an education.
What can we do about this? Acknowledge we’ve reached a crisis and fix the problem. Now. By the end of this budget cycle, let’s have a five-year plan that shows the schools that need to be built combined with the redistricting needed to equally distribute students across the entire system. Let’s also include recreational centers in our school planning in order to get the most use out of these significant, community investments. Interest rates are at the lowest they have been in history and we need to leverage our stellar bond rating to build schools. Because if we’re not using our bond ratings to meet basic citizen needs, then all of our work to get those bond ratings is simply for Council to point at them and say how great we are. This crisis is real.
Second, if you haven’t heard lately, Alexandria likes to send raw sewage into the Potomac River after some big rains. As you can imagine, our friends that are downstream, not to mention the EPA and Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality, don’t think too highly of that practice. The City calls it a Combined Sewer Overflow, or CSO. This is how it works.
The sewer and stormwater systems in some of Old Town (and only Old Town, mind you) are combined together. Under normal operations, stormwater and sewage both go to the water treatment plant. However, when the big rain comes, the system gets overloaded because it can’t handle the deluge of water. The resulting overflow of stormwater and raw sewage that can’t be processed heads straight into the Potomac. The system is incredibly outdated and is in need of replacement, for no other reason than dumping raw sewage into the Potomac is, well, gross.
The problem is cost. Some estimates have a CSO replacement system costing over $150 million – and maybe more. Since the City doesn’t have a printing press in the basement at City Hall pumping out brand new Treasury notes, the fine people of Alexandria will have to pick up the tab. Our friendly City Council says there may be some money from our generous and completely respectable elected officials in the General Assembly to help offset the full CSO fare. I’m sure they’ll be more than happy to simply hand over millions of dollars to one of the wealthiest cities in the Old Dominion. Anyone want to take bets on that?
There are no good options to fix the CSO in Old Town. It’s expensive and has to be done. Unlike citywide stormwater management, which has a potential solution in a proposed fee that would bring in more payers to meet federal obligations, we really can’t shift the CSO cost to anyone else. That’s why the CSO is the second trifecta issue for the City. It is a must-pay infrastructure bill that’s coming due and unless there’s free money from somewhere else, we all get to pay for this sh*t. Let’s hope the General Assembly gives us a few shillings.
Finally, we have our city budget. City budget watchers will tell you Alexandria’s financial picture is under strain not seen in a generation. But don’t take it from just anybody on this one. The City Manager, who sees the trends and is trying to plan for the future, has asked city departments to analyze what services they would be able to provide if the departments (in theory) only had 90 percent of the approved funding in fiscal year 2017. Essentially the City Manager wants to know how departments would operate if they had 10 percent less funding.
Again, let that sink in for a minute.
10 percent less funding.
What we see here is a city that is slowly, painfully retreating from its current community service level. That means government will, in fact, do less with the same or more. Costs are rising faster than money coming in. It’s that simple.
Alexandria’s budget woes will continue. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. They’re not leveling with you. And there is no more room for pet projects or “nice to dos.” Those days are long over. What the Mayor and Council should do is be honest with its citizens and tell us what the top priorities really are.
The Alexandria trifecta is reality and will take committed, focused leadership to solve. We can’t hide from it. It’s here. And it’s time to level with all Alexandrian’s about the costs, challenges, and options to tackle these issues head on.
I’m now on my sixth bourbon and it’s probably only taken you about five minutes to read this. If I keep this up, I won’t need to win the trifecta. The trifecta will own me. And that’s what we’re all trying to avoid.
– P.C. Publius
October 18, 2016