Signs of spring? New execs offer slight optimism in budgets
For the past couple of years, Charlottesville and Albemarle have faced grim downturns in revenue compared to the high-flying days of the real estate boom and ensuing high tax revenues that filled municipal coffers. This year's draft budgets from the new leaders, Tom Foley in Albemarle County and Maurice Jones in Charlottesville, hint that things could be starting to turn around. A little anyway.
Albemarle was particularly hard hit during the Great Recession. Last year, the fiscal year 2010/2011 budget had then-county manager Bob Tucker chopping $40 million–- 12 percent–- from what had been in the budget the previous year.
"We're living with the constraints of the past few years," says Foley. He acknowledges that some service reductions, such as community policing, likely aren't coming back soon. And county pet projects like Acquisition of Conservation Easements have zero funding in this budget.
Both men probably are glad they didn't have to make the brutal decisions their predecessors did. But instead of focusing on the losses, Foley stresses a more upbeat "transformation" of how county government does business.
"This budget moves beyond reaction to the downturn," he says.
At just $17,000 more than last year, the county operations portion of the budget is pretty much flat. Overall, the $301,078,469 budget for FY 2011/2012 is up $8.8 million for capital projects and seems to be about living with reduced expectations. "Stabilization is kind of the buzz word," says Foley.
Good news for taxpayers is that, with their property values falling another 1.25 percent, the existing tax rate of 74.2 cents/per $100 means most property owners will see a slight decrease in their tax bill.
While 61 county staff positions have been permanently eliminated over the past two years, says Foley, this year, he does want to hire two new police officers and a deputy director for social services, a department that's been hard hit with the economic woes. And for employees who haven't see a raise in three years, Foley seeks a 1 percent raise.
Things are a little more flush over at City Hall in Charlottesville, where Jones is seeking a 2 percent raise for employees who have seen a pair of year-end bonuses but whose actual salaries haven't risen in two years.
"It was not as arduous as we feared," says Jones of his first budget as city manager. The Fiscal Year 2011-2012 proposed $142,938,401 budget is 1.55 percent more than last year, with the increase largely heading to schools.
The city also keeps its property tax rate–- 95 cents per $100–- the same, which means 71 percent of homeowning citizens will pay no more in taxes, says Jones.
Meal and lodging taxes, sales tax, and business/professional license taxes exceeded expectations in the city, but the real money train may be new construction, with the city projecting an upturn on that in 2012. There's a Whole Foods opening soon on Hydraulic Road, and with the soon-to-be former Martha Jefferson Hospital site to join the tax rolls, "cautiously optimistic" are the buzz words around City Hall.
Capital expenditures have been gutted over the past few years in both the city and county, but both entities have new fire stations in the works. In Charlottesville, the Fontaine Avenue fire station has over $8 million set aside for it, as well as $3 million to improve treacherous parts of Old Lynchburg Road.
The county's new Ivy Fire and Rescue station on Ivy Road and an expansion of Greer Elementary both got the go ahead after last year's anticipated five-year building freeze.
Foley reminds that two new parks–- Byrom and Preddy Creek–- will open this year. County swimming holes suffered seriously shortened hours last year and even closed before Labor Day to save $6,000. They may get to open an hour longer this summer, he says.
For the first time ever, the revenue-sharing check that Albemarle cuts to Charlottesville for not annexing–- a deal inked shortly before the General Assembly outlawed annexation–- went down $365K to $18.1 million, and is expected to go down again next year, reflecting Albemarle's reduced home values.
For both locales, schools are the big ticket items in the budgets, and both continue to lose funding from Richmond. City schools expect to get $1.25 million less from the state, and Albemarle's $145 million budget for schools currently has a $3.8 million gap in state funding.
The county holds work sessions throughout this month with a March 30 public hearing scheduled, and the Board of Supervisors will adopt a budget April 6.
City Council holds its first public hearing March 21, and will adopt a budget April 12.