NEWS- Budget time: The cost of being "world class"

Property owners still reeling from this year's 18 percent average assessment increases could get a couple of Band-aids to staunch the flow in Charlottesville's new, 8.45 percent higher budget.

City Manager Gary O'Connell wants to drop the tax rate for the second year in a row, this time from $1.05 per $100 to $1.03 in the proposed fiscal year 2006-07 budget.

A bill carried by former mayor/new Delegate David Toscano and Senator Creigh Deeds lets homeowners earning $50,000 or less with houses valued at under $238,000 defer the tax increase– or up to $250 of it. Charlottesville is proposing to give eligible homeowners a $250 grant, not a deferral.

"The big deal is the assessment increases," says O'Connell about this year's budget. The Homeowners Tax Relief Program offsets increases in low- and moderate-income homeowners' assessments.

The city estimates that between 1,500 and 1,600 Charlottesville homeowners could be eligible for the grants, for which the proposed budget sets aside $420,000.

The $121,195,206 budget reduces expenditures by $1 million from last year, according to O'Connell. No one got laid off, but eight full-time positions were cut through reorganizations or attrition.

For example, $100,000 got sliced from the police department budget. "In the past, we funded 116 positions as if every one there were filled," O'Connell explains. "We know we don't have 116. Knowing about vacancies and retirements, we took out $100,000. We're not cutting the police department."

Same with the fire department. The budget shows five dispatcher positions eliminated for a savings of $355,000. Even the city manager's office feels the pinch, losing the unfilled position of "communications specialist" at $46K.

Large item pick-up, which used to be free once a year and now costs $25, gets dumped, saving over $153,000 in two public works positions, according to the budget. "Not many people were using it," says O'Connell.

"Then we looked at what had to increase," he says, listing the cost of maintaining the city's fleet, gas, new programs like the $420,000 tax relief program, and 4 percent salary and benefits increases.

A second afternoon Downtown Mall garbage pick-up has been added, and temporary leaf collectors will see a rise. A new fire truck to replace one that's 17 years old will set the city back nearly $1 million.

Even before the budget was presented to City Council March 6, it had already drawn the ire of John Pfaltz, who maintains that property owners "are not hurt by higher assessments; they're hurt by higher city spending. It's the increased cost of city government that's hurting them."

Pfaltz targets the bulky trash pick-up. "That's just going to make people angry," he contends. He challenges the $153,484 savings from a service the city says is rarely used. "Then it can't cost that much," he says. "That's ridiculous."

After the budget presentation, Vice Mayor Kevin Lynch said, "It's not a bad starting point." He'd like to see the property tax rate come down even more– to an equivalent of 5 cents– and he'll be eying the proposed 4 percent salary increases.

City Council will vote on the budget April 11.


Down the hill from City Hall, in the Albemarle County Office Building, County Exec Bob Tucker has prepared his own $259.3 million budget, an 11.2 percent increase over last year's.

Paying for urbanization is the theme, as Albemarle continues its transition from rural/suburban, Tucker explains in his budget message to the Board of Supervisors.

He highlights expenses the county didn't face 10 years ago: a paid rather than volunteer fire and rescue staff, fire stations, sidewalks, roads, and storm water management for the county's 35 square miles of growth area.

At the same time, the county has 690 square miles of rural area to protect, says county spokeswoman Lee Catlin, through $1 million programs like the Acquisition of Conservation Easements.

Albemarle employees are looking at a 4.6 percent salary increase, slightly more than city employees.

Like the city, county tax assessments have soared, up 27 percent in last year's biennial reassessments. Last year, supervisors voted to lower the county tax rate by 2 cents, bringing the rate down to $.74 per $100.

The budget includes an $885,000 reserve fund for the Board of Supervisors. "They can use it to invest in capital programs– or a tax rate reduction," says Catlin.