Most of the two dozen people who spoke at this week’s Albemarle County budget hearing expressed support of increased government funding.
Several speakers specifically called for additional funds to improve Red Hill Elementary School in southern Albemarle.
“For a community school that has served children in Albemarle since before 1905, it is time to carve out new spaces in our school that will allow our media center to meet state standards,” said Art Stowe, the school’s principal.
“It is time to get hot water to all our bathrooms,” he added.
Other speakers sought additional money for the Legal Aid Justice Center. Others spoke in favor of an additional $55,000 for a natural-resources manager. Currently, there is no planner dedicated solely for the rural area.
“You need to fund this,” Mary McCormick Ray said. “It is an item that will protect our county.”
Supervisors are expected to finalize the budget and real estate tax rate next week.
“We are kind of in the home stretch,” said board Chairwoman Jane Dittmar. “We will meet next Tuesday to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
In addition to that work session, a public hearing on the tax rate is scheduled for Wednesday.
In late February, County Executive Tom Foley recommended a budget built on a 1-cent real estate tax rate increase, to 80.9 cents per $100 of assessed value. He suggested the additional revenue go solely to pay for improvements to fire and rescue services.
“The board has spent the last month or so reviewing the budget and suggested things they felt were critical,” Foley said.
Additional requests from supervisors included $753,000 to fully support the school system’s proposed budget; $250,000 to restore funding to the county’s Acquisition of Conservation Easements program; $224,000 to add 38 more slots to the Bright Stars pre-kindergarten initiative; and more than $184,000 to pay for two additional traffic safety officers.
In March, supervisors opted to advertise a tax rate of 82.4 cents to cover many of those new initiatives and did not remove any of them from consideration. Instead, they sought input from the public in a series of town hall meetings.
Before Wednesday’s public hearing, all supervisors said in interviews that they were undecided on what maximum tax rate they would support.
Dittmar, who voted against advertising the higher tax rate, held three town halls in March.
“The one down in Scottsville was the most instructive to me,” Dittmar said. “People were very reticent for a tax increase again this year, but after we all talked together, people were interested in the 1-cent increase recommended by County Executive Foley.”
Supervisor Brad Sheffield held two in-person town hall meetings and also participated in a virtual town hall Monday.
“The priorities are all across the spectrum, from funding schools to funding police and fire and rescue,” Sheffield said. “As far as decisions being made, we’re coming down to the wire.”
Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd also voted against the advertised rate and was the only member of the board to forgo a town hall.
“I’ve always had the philosophy that town hall meetings are a time to discuss particular events that are happening with my constituents and not just general things that we have public hearings for,” Boyd said.
Boyd said he was not likely to support any additional tax increase.
“I think it adds too much of an increase on top of what we increased last year and the increase in appraised value, as well as water and sewer rates going up,” Boyd said. “Everything is going up except for wages.”
Supervisor Ann H. Mallek, who held three town hall meetings, said she supported advertising the higher rate to allow a flexible discussion.
“I am not certain where I will end up,” Mallek said. “I am going to be as frugal as possible. I see benefits to the fire and rescue increase as long as we can determine that there will also be improvements for our volunteer fire stations that need improvements.”
Supervisor Diantha McKeel held two meetings in person, as well as the electronic town hall.
“I have not made up my mind right now,” McKeel said. “I don’t think the public is aware of our struggle and challenges with the capital improvement program.”
The development of each annual budget is also guided by a five-year financial plan, which gives staff and elected officials a glimpse into future operating and capital needs. The current plan, which is not binding, calls for a 2-cent increase next year to pay for debt service and capital projects expenses.
“We need as a board and a community to figure out that additional two cents in the capital improvement program, or if we should figure out other ways to fund it,” McKeel said. “What we do this year affects that decision.”
Other possibilities for raising funds would include issuing bonds to pay for large projects. That would require a referendum, which could not be held until at least November 2016.
“These challenges will not go away with the budget that is being presented tonight,” Foley said, adding that a citizens’ committee will be formed this summer to look at long-term capital needs.
Some supervisors said they wanted to address the forthcoming issues with capital funding now.
“We have the chance to actually take care of that this year and not worry about a tax increase for next year,” Sheffield said.
Supervisor Liz Palmer, who held three meetings, said she is willing to go as high as 81.9 cents on the tax rate.
“[The meetings] have clearly shown me that citizens would like us to fund our schools and make sure that our children have an education,” Palmer said.
However, not all speakers at Wednesday’s hearing were in favor of increased government spending, especially for schools.
“Parents are receiving the most benefit from our tax dollars,” Robert Hogue said. “For someone older than 55 who has never had children, they deserve tax relief.”
Tuesday’s work session on the budget is set to begin at 5 p.m. at the Albemarle County Office Building on McIntire Road. The public hearing on the tax rate will begin at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the same location.