Up 4.21 percent, City budget jump lowest in decade

While Albemarle County tightens its belt and tells schools to soldier forward under an ever-growing shortfall, Charlottesville's coffers are still flush. Its school budget will be fully funded, and most likely will have a few extra million thrown at it, despite a recent study indicating the city has one of the lowest-achieving, highest-cost school systems in the state.

City Manager Gary O'Connell, left, presented his fiscal year 2008-2009 budget Wednesday, stressing that the $6.33 million increase in spending is the lowest– 4.21 percent– Charlottesville has seen in a decade. Certainly, the $127.3 million operating budget represents a smaller hike than last year's hefty 12 percent increase.

Of course, that was the same year real estate assessments rose an average of 15 percent, and O'Connell acknowledges the correlation between higher taxes and higher city spending.

The good news for beleaguered city homeowners is that while the average assessment went up 4 percent, one third of those residents saw no increase or a reduction in assessments, O'Connell says. And the budget is based on the current 95 cents per $100 assessed value tax rate since City Council reduced the rate 4 cents last year.

"Council asked for a budget under 5 percent," he says. "This is the lowest increase in almost 10 years. The budget has had double-digit increases the past five years."

On the housing front, the proposed budget raises the tax grant program for people who need help paying their ever-increasing property taxes. Homeowners whose houses are worth $365,000 or less (criminy– Charlottesville's median house price was $280,000 in 2007) and whose household incomes are $50K or less can get help with their property taxes. O'Connell notes that two-thirds of the houses in the city fall in the $365,000-or-less category.

The City Manager emphasizes that he's not cutting any services; in fact, he says he's introducing new services like two new bus routes and dedicated emergency medical services. The latter proved controversial last year when Council approved nearly $1 million to pay for its own ambulances and staff to supplement the Charlottesville Albemarle Rescue Squad.

"The fire department is now a first responder and ran 2,500 EMS calls last year," says O'Connell. "This budget proposal is with less people– six instead of eight last year." Billing health insurance companies is one way the city is talking about paying for the broadened EMS response, as is Albemarle County. Interestingly, the city's FY 2006-2007 budget eliminated five positions in the fire department.

On the staffing front, the City plans to add a new building inspector whose salary will be paid for by construction fees, according to O'Connell. The budget also slices one assistant city manager position from his staff– although former city spokesman Maurice Jones will still come on as assistant city manager.

The budget puts $1.4 million toward affordable housing, perhaps to mollify Mayor Dave Norris, who wanted the city to devote 1 percent of its budget to affordable housing, a notion O'Connell didn't consider a good idea, and that got shot down in a 2-3 Council vote. "I'm recommending at least $1 million for next year," says O'Connell.

Other perks citizens can look forward to: new pools! A new Smith Pool eats up $5 million of the capital budget, and a new Onesty pool will cost $3 million. Another $3 million goes toward Downtown Mall construction projects, although that line item will make some downtown denizens nervous, given the debacle that's closed Third Street for months longer than originally planned.

City employees will get a 4 percent raise with the proposed budget, same as last year.

The budget fully funds the School Board's request of $39.78 million, unlike poor Albemarle County schools, who are looking at a $1.3-million-and-growing shortfall. And historically, the city tosses a few extra million above and beyond what's requested, thanks to City Council's goal to give schools 40 percent of all new revenues, whether the schools need it or not. Last year that generosity put an extra $4.3 million in the schools' checking account.

Such largesse has drawn criticism, particularly in light of a recent study by the Claire Booth Luce Policy Institute that rates the cost efficiency of Virginia's public schools. That study puts city schools in the category of worst performance at the highest cost in the state: $183.69 per point of achievement per student. (Albemarle ranks in the second-highest category in achievement– but it spends $122.99 per student, which puts it in the worst cost-efficiency category of the better-achieving schools.)

"There's no accountability for the money," blasts former city councilor Rob Schilling. "I had a School Board member tell me off the record, 'We don't know how to spend it.'" Schilling also notes that the Charlottesville school population is falling.

City school spokeswoman Cass Cannon says the study relied on old data from 2004-2005. "We're no longer in the worst," she points out, although the moves raises Charlottesville from a "lowest" achieving district up to "poor."

'Traditionally Charlottesville schools have favored lower student-to-teacher ratios and spending on the fine arts," explains Cannon. "That commitment shows we spend more money per student. We're improving."

The city is also giving Superintendent Rosa Atkins a break as a new administrator. Atkins arrived in mid-2006 following the tumultuously brief tenure of Scottie Griffin. "Everyone feels the schools are heading in the right direction," says Cannon. "We're giving her the benefit of the doubt to catch up."

Schilling says he's "offended" by the budget and calls it "the same song and dance we get every year." In particular, he claims that O'Connell threatens to cut services every year and then ends up with a surplus that in the past two years has totaled around $15 million. "That's dishonest budgeting," says Schilling. "Take those monies and whack it off the tax rate," he suggests.

But O'Connell says the budget meets City Council's strategic vision by focusing on education, affordable housing, environmental sustainability, and youth recreation.

And world class cities don't come cheap.

9 comments

At least Shilling is willing to speak out. The rest of the Kool-Aid drinkers just go along with whatever O'Connell says.

"Largesse" is a fabulous word. The City has gotten used to it and doesn't seem too interested in making losing it for the sake of making the city more affordable to live in. What about raising salaries 3% instead of 4%? Why are we throwing in money for the schools that they're not even asking for? They get their entire budget request plus an extra $1,440,992. Homeowners could use that extra million. It seems we've gotten so used to the "largesse" that people can get just about anything they ask for without much accountability. Council will not lower taxes unless they hear public demand for it loud and clear, so be sure to attend the citizen budget meetings.

Rob Schilling needs to get that chip off his shoulder and ride into the sunset. For someone who bills himself as such a compassionate person, he sure spews negativety every chance he gets.

The city wants people to remain in the dark about salary increases.

A 4% salary increase is much better than a 3% increase. Because city retirement is based on the last three years of an employee's salary, or the highest 3 years of salary.

A city department head now making $125,000 a year will soon be making $130,000 with a 4% raise. That extra $5,000 a year goes a long way in calculating their retirement checks.

I watched last night's Council meeting ant ehd the Gimmees have started coming out in droves. One of the representattives of the City's second homeless shelter was there asking for "help" from Council after being in business for only three months. Mr. Huja was the first to say he wanted to "help." Did the representative of the Hope Center ask the 1,600 members of IMPACT for help? Obviously not. That many people should be able to come up with all of the money they need to operate each year. I have known for years that the residents of the surrounding counties will do almost anything to dump all of their problems of the "poor" on gullible city residents while they spend their money on their families. They figured out long ago, that there's not an open hand that the Council will ignore. Too bad the City can't get revenue sharing going with the other counties in the region.

"I think that is very applicable given the fact the County is in such bad shape right now. It is about values and responsibilities." I have no clue as to the meaning of this.
"And keep in mind there are citizens on the Committee to research EMS options and they are all for the changes" Where is this research? No, in a democracy, majority is supposed to hold sway, not an insignificant minority of less than 15.
There was no citizen research that showed that the new service would be an improvement over the existing, or that the existing service nedded improving for that matter. There was no citizen research that indicated the effect that this new service would have upon the future viability of CARS in terms of personnel or financing. There was no citizen research that indicated the cost of this service to tax payers five years out. If you can not produce a record of citizen research, there is no reason to bring it up unless you are attempting to mislead the public. Or, are you implying that the members of this committee have more knowledge or intelligence than the community at large. It would be interesting to know what you think of the wisdom of the opinions of the two people on the committee who voted against the recommendations up front and not later by email. The whole process smells of last month's fish. How many intelligent people, after being forwarned of upcoming economic hard times, would start an expensive new service in a spanking brand new $10 million fire station, that NOBODY ASKED FOR? It may be sane, but it certainly seems foolish to me.

TheSaneOne, Rob Schilling is full of positives. He's positive that the City's budget has risen at an excessive rate in recent years. He's positive that there's too much staff. He's positive that the real estate tax rate is much too high. Many people agree with him. Which of these positives are you negative about?
In November, 2007, Mr. O'Connell announced $6.7M budget surplus, which was 5% of the current $134.7M budget. That 5% (which qucikly rose to at least $7.1M) was allocated. Do we add that 5% to this year's budget or next year's? It's getting ridiculous for the City to express budget increases in terms of percents. I'm sure that $127.3M operating budget does not contain the capital improvements plan totals. Is that his way of trying to put things in a "positive" light and give the tax payers the impression that this is not a spendthrift's budget? Why, then, is he recommending that the City start an EMS service that no citizen has come out in support of?

what the school system needs to do with the money is create a school just for the delincquints who ruin it for the rest of us. It is unbelieveable how the parents try and police what movies we see, when we come home etc etc and EVERYDAY at school we have knives, drugs, fights, and pieces of crap who disrupt day after day and no one does ANYTHING. The schools are unsafe because the dirtbags control the agenda and are afraid of nobody.

The City is up 4.26%, the County is up 7+%. I think that is very applicable given the fact the County is in such bad shape right now. It is about values and responsibilities. And as far as no citizen coming out in support of the new EMS program, completely untrue. And keep in mind there are citizens on the Committee to research EMS options and they are all for the changes.