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Albemarle departments facing capacity limitations

Many departments within Albemarle County have become understaffed and underfunded, county officials said during a work session Wednesday. The conversation was the third the Board of Supervisors has held on the five-year financial plan, which is scheduled to be adopted next week.

“What you’re hearing is that the county is urbanizing, it’s changing and it’s putting pressures on all parts of Albemarle County,” said Col. Steve Sellers, county chief of police.

The five-year financial plan is a planning tool used to show how expenses for local government services compare to revenue projections, and it pulls together the three sections of Albemarle’s budget: the local government, the school division and the capital improvement program. This year marks the first time this process has included the schools.

During Wednesday’s meeting, supervisors heard concerns from a panel of Albemarle employees that included Sellers; Greer Elementary School principal Robyn Bolling; Dan Eggleston, chief of the county fire department; and social services director Kathy Ralston.

Bolling said that Greer is experiencing transience in student cohorts and changing demographics. Currently, 76.6 percent of Greer’s students receive free or reduced price meals. What’s more, 223 of Greer’s 601 students are English as a Second Language students, a population that requires additional intervention services.

Ralston said the social services office is understaffed by about 23 positions, which means employees are working at 163 percent of capacity. Additionally, new mandates are leading to staff working more overtime hours, which have jumped 94 percent between 2009 and 2014.

“It’s not that there aren’t any
good stories going on, but the
stress on the department is pretty
big right now,” Ralston said.

“It’s not that there aren’t any good stories going on, but the stress on the department is pretty big right now,” Ralston said.

Albemarle’s police department also is understaffed, Sellers said. The national average is police officers per 1,000 people. Albemarle averages 1.2 officers per 1,000 people.

“Having the capacity to put officers immediately on community problems is what a community should have, and right now we don’t have that,” Sellers said, noting that officers would also benefit from increased basic training time.

Eggleston said that he’s concerned that if Albemarle continues to defer requests, they won’t be able to keep up with demand. The fire chief also noted that Albemarle ranks the lowest among its five peer counties in fire-rescue spending.

As presented in the five-year financial plan last month, Albemarle County could face a gap between expected revenues and expenditures as high as $8.1 million for fiscal year 2016. The gap is projected to rise to $13 million in fiscal year 2017, before spiking at an estimated $26 million in fiscal year 2020. Albemarle County Public Schools’ share of the $8.1 million shortfall could be as high as $4.4 million. The shortfalls would occur if local government and the school division implement 2 percent salary increases for teachers and 2.3 percent raises for classified staff.

School division officials have said that the system could cover projected expenditures without an increase to taxes if no salary increases are adopted, but also said that without new revenues they would be prohibited from adding staff to deal with the more-than 300 new students Albemarle expects next year. New initiatives, like expansion of the world languages program from Cale Elementary School to other schools, also would be halted.

Last month, schools superintendent Pam Moran said teachers are placing a top priority on compensation this year, as many school employees in recent years have seen their net take home pay decline even with gross pay increases.

Adjusted for inflation, a county employee who is making $50,000 per year and who is enrolled in the basic medical plan has seen their wage decrease 6.3 percent since fiscal year 2010, budget director Lori Alshouse said.

To help reduce a $3.9 million deficit last year, the Board of Supervisors and School Board lowered 2 percent raises for employees to 1 percent, which saved the schools $1.1 million.

To learn about additional ways to finance capital projects, supervisors discussed a variety of bond options and service districts. Under a general obligation bond, for example, a project or a group of projects go to the public for a referendum vote. Assistant county executive Bill Letteri encouraged the board to examine how other localities engage in securing bonds.

Localities also can create service districts by ordinance, Alshouse said.

“It’s usually an added service, or a higher level of service,” Letteri said, noting that the move wouldn’t provide benefit for the entire county.

“You can only provide additional or more complete or more timely services within those boundaries,” Alshouse said, noting that some communities use them for economic development areas or sidewalk projects, amongst other uses.

“Then you levy the tax on the value of the property within the district,” Alshouse added.

Supervisors Jane Dittmar said that she heard support for service districts during her recent town hall meetings.

Supervisors Diantha McKeel, Ann H. Mallek, Liz Palmer and Dittmar all said most of the comments they’ve heard during their town hall meetings concern the school division’s growing enrollment and increasing public safety.

From fiscal year 2009 to fiscal year 2015, Albemarle’s budget shrank by almost 3.5 percent, from $333.7 million to $322.5 million. During that same period, school enrollment grew 4.2 percent, from 12,531 students to 13,075 students. Additionally, Albemarle saw more than 4,600 new dwelling units constructed between 2005 and 2012, with most of those rising in the urban area.

The Board of Supervisors last year increased real estate taxes by 3.3 cents, which brought the tax rate to 79 cents per $100 of assessed value. Within that 3.3 cents, seven-tenths of a penny was carved out for mandates to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The school division received nine-tenths of a penny, and 1.7 cents were directed toward the capital improvement program and other local government needs.

The Board of Supervisors and the Albemarle School Board plan to meet jointly Dec. 10, at which time the supervisors are scheduled to adopt the five-year plan.