Grim budget: Albemarle picks austerity to hold tax rate
With the University of Virginia as the big employer in town, Albemarle County has often been thought to be sheltered from the financial pain other parts of the country are suffering. The fiscal year 2010-11 budget County Exec Bob Tucker unveiled February 25 dispels that notion.
Tucker's $293,850,901 budget is $10.3 million trimmer than last year and nearly $40 million less than fiscal year 2008-09.
The good news for homeowners is that the property tax rate holds steady at 74.2 cents per $100, so while homes lost value in the county on average 3.96 percent, at least those tax bills will be a few bucks less.
The bad news: All those best-place-to-live attributes of which this area boasts, like good schools and conservation-minded practices? Well, those aren't looking as rosy.
In the past, Albemarle's more liberal leaning supes might have upped the tax rate to maintain a balance in revenues. But with the election of Republicans Duane Snow and Rodney Thomas to the board last fall, the balance of power shifted, and in January the board commanded Tucker to come up with a balanced budget using the existing tax rate.
And Tucker is sure to point out that with the $18.5 million in "revenue-sharing" the county has to pay to Charlottesville (to prevent annexation), the county's tax rate is effectively 62.6 cents per $100– one of the lowest in Virginia.
The new, more conservative board also mandated zero-based budgeting, but Tucker says that's not really a radical idea for the county. "The impression is that we take last year's budget and just add an increase," he says. "We've always done a modified zero-based budget."
While no layoffs are on the horizon, 78 positions are frozen, eliminated, or offset. "We're back to 2002 levels in staffing," notes Tucker, noting that for the second year in a row, Albemarle employees will not be seeing a raise.
He pledges to maintain core services–- those essential to health and public safety.
Hard-hit real estate construction has in turn hit the county agency in charge of that. Community Development has frozen, eliminated, or shifted 28 positions, with some of those staff members moving to Social Services, where business is booming because of need.
Funding for all new capital programs is ix-nayed, so forget new libraries, schools, or fire stations for the next five years.
A five percent cut to the Jefferson-Madison Regional Libraries caused an uproar a few weeks ago and had library officials threatening to close the Scottsville and Crozet branches. "This budget does not recommend closing any libraries," says Tucker, who says he'd prefer to see the $158,657 in cuts spread throughout the library system.
Likewise, Albemarle Housing Improvement Program, Jefferson Area Board for Aging, and Piedmont Virginia Community College all get five percent cuts as well.
Community agencies have avoided the knife for the past two years, says Tucker, but this year that wasn't possible. Cultural events like the Virginia Film Festival, the Festival of the Book, and Ash-Lawn Opera will see 10 percent cuts totaling $7,926–- relatively small amounts for the county, but more devastating for the nonprofits.
For Albemarle Truth in Taxation Alliance president Keith Drake, the budget is a step in the right direction.
"While it may appear they're holding the tax rate, they're actually lowering it because assessments went down," he says. "A lot of people are out of work, and the average savings of $60 is small, but sadly meaningful."
And, says Drake, between 2000 and 2008, homeowners saw double-digit tax increases.
The recommended spending for schools is $140.5 million, but the School Board is looking for about $8 million more.
The school funding amount "takes us back to 2006 level," says Drake. "The percentage of increases in student enrollment and inflation has been negligible. While the cuts may be painful, they're not catastrophic."
With Albemarle's main sources of revenue–- property and personal taxes, sales taxes and state funding–- all down, Tucker acknowledges that things are not likely to get better anytime soon.
"This is not a quick turnaround recession," he says. "We're not bouncing back like we did in the '90s when we'd be down for a year and then come back."
The first public hearing is March 3, and work sessions continue through March. The Board of Supervisors will finalize the tax rate April 7.