Recession-ender: Albemarle budget ready to grow
The sun has come out and the recession is over, if Albemarle's 2013-14 fiscal year budget is any indicator. The county's budget was grim grim grim in 2010, reflecting the nosedive in real estate values and in corresponding property tax revenue. Last year's was slightly improved, with county exec Tom Foley calling it a "half-smile" budget after unrelenting cuts since 2008.
This year, he's moved to "very optimistic" in describing the financial picture. "I don't want to talk about recovering from the recession," he says. "I want to look to the future."
Not that all is as rosy as in the days before the housing bubble burst and real estate assessments soared 15 percent in a year. Assessments dropped again slightly this year, good news for homeowners whose property tax bill should be a little less.
Bullish in the county revenue picture are sales, meals, and personal property taxes, along with emergency medical services fees, which have more than offset the decline in property values. As for the drop in real estate prices, says Foley, "I feel pretty strongly we're at the bottom of that."
The $321-million budget is up 2.3 percent– $7.2 million– from last year, while the tax rate stays at 76.2 cents per $100 of value.
Last year, the Board of Supervisors bumped the rate two cents and called it an "equalization" rate to make up for plummeting property values. "For the average homeowner," says Foley, "they've seen a decline in their tax bill over the past five years."
One bonus of the still-declining home values is that the always wince-inducing revenue-sharing check Albemarle has to write the city, giving Charlottesville 10 cents of the property tax rate in exchange for not annexing, is down from $17.5 million last year to around $16 million this year. That's because revenue-sharing calculations lag a few years, says Foley. "They're experiencing our worst year," he explains. "They're going to see that for the next few years."
Albemarle cut 70 staff positions during the grim years, notes Foley, and the new budget calls for hiring in social services and police. Three law enforcement positions were unfrozen last year, and this year, four new officers are added, including one new school resource officer and one traffic cop funded by Photo Red revenue.
And after four years in which county employees received no raises, Foley proposes a 2 percent merit increase.
Fire and Rescue sees a 24 percent bump in its budget, thanks to those EMS billing revenues. Foley touts improved response times as a result of new EMS service on Pantops and Seminole Trail, and the first year of operations for the Ivy fire station.
Another winner in the new budget is the beleaguered library system, which is slated for an 11.6 percent increase in its funding.
One bright note gleaned from the county budget is that crime in Albemarle may be down, based on the number of prisoners in the regional jail. That, in turn, reduces the county's cost of incarceration.
Schools always get the largest chunk of the county's expenditures, and the school division will see an increase of $3.3 million in its operations budget. By moving school bus replacement from the school division to the capital fund, that frees up another $1.4 million for education, says Foley.
Dark clouds still to be addressed are the county's capital budget, says Foley. Aside from the now-under-construction Crozet library, a fire station, and the upcoming police firing range, the capital budget has pretty much focused on maintenance. "This is one area we need to lift up," says Foley.
On the horizon is a major courthouse improvement, and schools, libraries, and fire stations that have been put off.
Just as Charlottesville is mandated by tougher stormwater requirements to protect the Chesapeake Bay, Albemarle, too, has that in its future. Foley suggests a bond referendum to pay for the infrastructure needed to clean water entering streams.
Watchdog organization Albemarle Truth in Taxation (ATTA) gives a thumbs up to the hiring of new police officers, and the 7 percent increase in county employee contributions to healthcare. "While an individual county healthcare plan holder will pay about 9 cents a day more in contribution," says ATTA's Jim Stern, "the taxpayers will pay nearly $500 more per year on their behalf."
Foley sounds most chipper talking about the future. "Let's talk about moving forward," he says. "We'll be thinking about a strategic plan for the next five years, and how we get there."
The Board of Supervisors will be working on the budget throughout March, and a public hearing is scheduled March 27.
Correction: The FY 2013-14 budget adds four new police officers, not seven as originally reported. Three positions were unfrozen last year.Read more on: albemarle budget