Supervisors not ready to select process for neighborhood funding

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has agreed to proceed with a plan to divide $1.4 million in funds among the county’s seven growth areas to pay for small-scale projects, but its members are not yet ready to determine how those projects will be selected.

“We’ve got a critical sum of money to distribute here,” said Supervisor Rick Randolph. “I think that’s a decision of the board to decide the highest and best use of this $1.4 million dollars.”

In December, the Board of Supervisors agreed to use the funds — part of the $8.6 million surplus from fiscal year 2016 — on a neighborhood improvement funding initiative.

“What we thought we heard was that this was intended to create an opportunity to fund smaller-scale neighborhood improvements and one-time capital investments … that benefit place-making and quality of life,” said Lee Catlin, the assistant county executive.

Catlin said each of the county’s master plans already include projects that are smaller in scale and hard to qualify for funding in the county’s capital improvement program. She said the community advisory committees that oversee the plans could serve as conduits for projects to come forward.

“They could be a bus stop enhancement, a pedestrian path, pond amenities, traffic-calming, signalized pedestrian crossings and pocket parks,” Catlin said. “Everybody has got some of those in your master plans that are struggling to find funding.”

Staff had initially recommended that each of the growth areas receive a base contribution of $75,000 and would receive additional funding based on its population according to the 2010 United States Census.

However, supervisors chose not to go in that direction and instead want to see what projects come forward through the community advisory committees that oversee each growth area.

“I like the idea of the [community advisory committees] being conduits for ideas, but not as gate-keepers,” said Supervisor Ann H. Mallek. “I am not in favor of handing them over the money and telling them to go spend it.”

Supervisor Brad Sheffield said he wanted to see an inventory of what projects have already been worked on by staff to help the community advisory committees with their work.

“We don’t want to run into unforeseen barriers so that when we do put the money together, the project can move forward quickly,” Sheffield said. “There are too many examples of where we go to implement something and there’s always something that’s tripping us up.”

Sheffield also wanted weight to be given to ideas that can be leveraged into other larger projects that could help carry out strategic plans.

However, Supervisor Liz Palmer said requiring projects to demonstrate how they could attract additional funding might limit what committees want to do.

“We don’t want to lose track of the fact that we have the committees come up with what they think is the most important thing,” Palmer said. “If our committee has a small project that wants to connect one trail with another trail, that’s leveraging the use of the trails, but it’s not necessarily leveraging the money.”

Sheffield said he saw the role of the committees as being a first point for public input and that the committees themselves shouldn’t be making the decisions on how to spend the money.

“The committees are there to help serve as a conduit for the rest of the public, so I would envision that [they] would help us hold the meetings, gather the information because each of us can’t do it alone,” Sheffield said.

Chairwoman Diantha McKeel said there used to be a matching grant program for neighborhoods and hers applied.

“We had to give $500 in matching and we managed to take all of the little circles and cul-de-sacs and beautify them,” McKeel said. “All these years later, they have been kept up and are still there. My neighborhood had ownership.”

At one point, supervisors discussed whether an urban planner should be hired to work on these issues.

“For so long, our county has been really focused on the rural areas, which I think is fine, but we’re an urbanizing county, and some of what we’re dealing with are urban issues,” McKeel said.

Catlin said she heard the feedback from the board and would return in the spring with more details about how the funding initiative might proceed.

“If we’re talking about going in the direction of [new] positions instead of projects on the ground, we have to be really clear with the community advisory committees starting now because people are already getting excited about the idea of owning the opportunity of making a few quality-of-life projects,” Catlin said.