Four new members of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors had their first chance Tuesday to put their stamp on the county’s direction.
“When people run for office it’s all about differentiating yourself, but then what happens is you get on the board and all of a sudden you’re supposed to work together,” said Tyler St. Clair, a facilitator with the Commonwealth Centers for High Performance Organizations.
Since 2005, supervisors have held strategic retreats each year to help establish priorities that give direction to county staff on how to prepare five-year financial forecasts.
Four of the six current board members were elected for the first time in November, setting the stage for a potential shift in county policy.
While the new board adopted a budget in April, the day-long retreat in the Monticello Fire Department training room was the first opportunity for new members to gauge support for key issues.
Supervisors were asked to envision the “ideal” Albemarle County of the year 2030. They also were asked to say what they hope to achieve over the next three years.
“We will leave here with a pretty good understanding of how we’re going to get [short-term and long-term priorities] aligned,” St. Clair said.
Supervisor Diantha McKeel, who comes to the board after serving 16 years on the county School Board, said she understood the purpose of the retreat.
“Our work on the board is about being in a helicopter and not trying to get down in the weeds,” McKeel said. “We need to be focusing on the big picture as opposed to doing the daily work of the staff.”
In the morning, supervisors were split into two groups to enable them to brainstorm about big ideas.
Topics included where to prioritize new trails, whether the county should support extending broadband Internet access into the rural area, how to incentivize redevelopment of “tired” shopping centers and whether to reexamine the county’s land-use taxation policy.
Under land use, landowners who can demonstrate their property is used for agricultural use qualify for a lower property assessment, which results in lower taxes.
“I have been trying to pay attention and found several examples that don’t make sense to me,” said Supervisor Liz Palmer of the program. “I need to understand more because I’m seeing a lot of inconsistencies.”
Supervisor Ann H. Mallek, a farmer first elected in 2007, was on the board when a revalidation process was enacted into county law the following year.
“Anomalies exist but there are reasons for that,” Mallek said.
Palmer repeated several times throughout the day that addressing solid-waste issues is one of her top priorities while in office.
“I see it as a natural-resource protection issue because I know how much illegal dumping is going on,” Palmer said.
Palmer got the support of other supervisors when they agreed to prioritize establishment and implementation of a solid-waste management plan.
Concerns from new supervisors prompted other potential goals.
“I’m worried that as we went through the recession, we slashed departments,” McKeel said. “Are we at levels in community development where we can really do the work that we expect?”
That prompted addition of a priority to fund dedicated planners to address transportation and the rural areas. That idea had been considered in the budget development process but ultimately not funded due to a lack of resources.
Supervisor Brad Sheffield suggested restarting consideration of a regional transit authority, and the idea had support of at least three of his colleagues. The General Assembly passed legislation in 2008 that allowed Albemarle to enter into an authority with Charlottesville, but declined to authorize a referendum on a one-cent sales tax increase to pay for additional service.
On the topic of development areas, Sheffield suggested the county would benefit from the creation of small area plans within larger master planning areas.
“The example that comes to mind is the two-lane portion of Rio Road from [the Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center] to Park Street,” Sheffield said. “There needs to be more than pockets of neighborhoods and there needs to be connective fabric.”
Palmer did not get four votes to proceed with another priority to fully fund the county’s Acquisition of Conservation Easements program. The budget for the program, which is intended to preserve open space in the rural area, was cut to almost zero during the economic downturn.
Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd, first elected to the board in 2003, said he could not support it as an item to accomplish in the next three years.
“In these economic times, of all these things we want to put on our plate, we don’t want to fund a non-core service,” Boyd said.
McKeel and Sheffield said they needed to understand more of the history before they could proceed.
On education, supervisors all agreed that establishing a sustainable funding structure for schools is a priority, but disagreed on whether Albemarle should empanel a Blue Ribbon Commission similar to one Charlottesville created to suggest new funding mechanisms.
That topic will be on the agenda for the board’s work session with the School Board on Wednesday, as will a further discussion on what role the county can play in terms of expanding opportunities for early childhood development. They also will further discuss the evolution of CATEC.
“What the board has done is to come together and create aspirations and to also identify priorities,” St. Clair said in conclusion.
County Executive Thomas Foley said staff would review the priorities suggested by supervisors and would bring back a revised list at a future meeting for their approval. He suggested there may need to be a further winnowing of priorities.
“That’s what the budget meetings are for,” Mallek said.