As the weather begins to warm, the Alexandria political campaign is beginning to hit its stride.
Last week, Democrats unveiled a new Web site, www.truthinalexandria.com, in what party officials said is an effort to correct "inaccuracies" that mayoral candidate Vice Mayor William C. Cleveland (R) and several Republican City Council candidates, including John Reardon and Keith Burner, have stated in various candidates' forums.
The site, put together by Democratic operatives Justin Wilson, Todd Ruopp and Martin Haley, among others, takes 13 statements by the Republicans and purports to correct them.
Although the Web site tries to be straightforward in its procurement of the facts, Alexandria Democratic Committee Chairman Susan Kellom couldn't help but throw some jabs in introducing the Dems' self-proclaimed truth-squadding.
"Those of you who have been following the candidates' forum trail are already well aware that some of the Republican candidates are saying things, that, to put a charitable spin on it, just ain't so," she wrote in an e-mail introducing the site. "In fact, they are saying things that would have Pinocchio's nose about a foot long by now."
The GOP parried immediately. "The Democratic Web site is the latest attempt by the Democratic candidates to avoid the issues because they have failed to develop a coherent plan of their own," said C. Kelly Skrabak, chairman of the Alexandria Republican Committee. "The Democratic Party political machine is trying to divert citizens from the real issues affecting the city. This campaign is about the issues."
So what exactly has everybody so steamed?
First, Democrats say Cleveland has taken credit for "initiating" a three-cent cut in the real estate tax rate last year. The Web site says that he did not make the motion to reduce the tax rate, that council member William D. Euille (D) did.
That is true, and council member Redella S. "Del" Pepper (D) seconded Euille's motion, according to the city clerk's office. The question then becomes, did Cleveland actually try to take credit for the motion or just the discussion that lead to the vote?
"You see, there's the truth and then there's their truth," Cleveland said in an interview. "I never said I made the motion for the tax cut. But what I did do, as I always do during budget season is get people talking about the idea [to reduce taxes]. Bill Euille just happened to make the motion, and he gets credit for it. But I was already talking about it."
Democrats move on to poke at Reardon for saying he could increase services while cutting taxes by $10 million to $35 million. That, Democrats say, is impossible without making cuts in services.
Although Reardon said he was flattered that the Dems were trying to pick apart his words, he maintained his belief that he could help devise a way refund money to taxpayers without slashing services.
"There's an extra $35 million we've got from the real estate assessments," Reardon said. "With the $35 million, I can give back $25 million to the taxpayers, with $10 million left over."
But city documents show that would be difficult. The city has actually gained $33.7 million in revenue from real estate taxes, and expenditures will increase by nearly $25 million, according to the city manager's budget.
City staff has recommended a three-cent reduction in the real estate tax rate, which would eat up $5.7 million of the $8.7 million left over. Ancillary costs and debt reduction would take the remaining $3 million. So that extra money that Reardon hopes to find, according to the city's figures, is, well, gone.
Presented with the city's figures, Reardon said, "I think the city is comparing apples and oranges with the numbers in the budget."
Democrats also take Reardon and Burner to task for claiming that "citizens are facing a 28 percent tax increase." Democrats say that cannot be true because assessments increased by an average of 19.93 percent. Burner and Reardon say the Dems misquoted them. They say they said residents were facing a increase of 25 percent, not 28 percent.
Dems say both candidates "blur the lines between assessments and taxes . . . and that the tax rate has not yet been set by City Council."
"I think they've taken my words out of context," Reardon said. "I am referring to the residential real estate rate, which did go up 25 percent. So if the assessment went up 25 percent, the tax will go up 25 percent."
Asked whether that would still be the case if the City Council votes to reduce the tax rate by three cents, which would reduce the tax increase to 21 percent, on average, Reardon said, "The City Council had every opportunity to reduce the rate in February as soon as the assessments were mailed out if they wanted to. What I think the council needs to do is keep the needs of taxpayers in mind."
The race to Election Day, May 6, continues.