NEWS- Belt tightening: County budget 'assesses' hard times

County exec Bob Tucker has never seen Albemarle's real estate reassessments go up by such a paltry amount– this year, 0.14 percent.

"What a difference a year makes," Albemarle County Exec Bob Tucker observed to local media before presenting his fiscal 2008-09 budget on February 8.

"It's really unprecedented," says Tucker. "I've been here 35 years, and I've never seen a reassessment that low."

He's never before seen an reassessment happen annually either. At the end of January, for the first time in history, Albemarle began mailing annual reassessments. What wags thought might speed the capture of volcanic gains in property taxes nearly captured a loss.

 A year ago, as Albemarle was giddy over annual property reassessments that were averaging about 15 percent, upward, Tucker presented an operating budget that increased 6.7 percent. This year, with the housing market tanking nationally and county residential assessments up a more modest 0.14 percent, Tucker's $268.7 million operating budget represents a mere 2.1 percent increase.

The total $331.4 million total budget focuses on maintaining essential services, Tucker says, and the $26 million increase over last year is mainly in capital expeditures, not for operations. The 69.5 percent, $20.1 million increase in the capital budget goes to pay for projects at Albemarle High School as well as at Brownsville and Greer elementaries.

Albemarle schools get 60 percent of the county's budget. The School Board has approved a $151.7 million budget, and they'll be looking to the Board of Supervisors for the $1.3 million in revenue they're missing. The Supervisors have $300,000 in discretionary funds, says Tucker.

It's up to the Supervisors to determine whether to cut, hike, or maintain the current 68 cents per $100 assessed value tax rate (from which Charlottesville gets 10 cents in "revenue sharing," the price the county pays the city for not annexing).

Tucker notes that 13 county positions have been frozen and four eliminated. "I've tried to avoid layoffs," he says, preferring attrition to reduce staff. Fifty-five percent of the budget goes to salaries, and county employees are looking at a 3.35 percent raise. 

The new Pantops fire station will need staffing, and $500K goes toward that. An increase in the number of inmates at the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail means the county's obligation there goes up another half million in the proposed budget.

The budget assumes $1 million in revenue from an emergency medical service recovery fee– i.e. charging the victims– something the BOS has not approved. 

In October, says Tucker, the county staff projected a $3 million shortfall in the current budget, and began moving 1 cent in tax revenue from capital expenditures to operations. "I'm fearful we haven't reached the bottom," says Tucker.

The real estate market has been slowing locally since 2006, so upcoming reduced revenues could hardly have been a surprise. Was it a mistake to lower the tax rate last year by 6 cents from 74 to 68 cents per $100?

"I think you ought to ask the Board that," replies Tucker, who recommends that the tax rate stay the same. At least three public forums are upcoming, the first on February 20, before the BOS adopts a budget April 9.