Many Virginia localities have adopted ordinances allowing their public infrastructure projects to be developed by private firms. So far, Albemarle County is not among them.
At a joint meeting Thursday, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the county School Board discussed the idea of public-private partnerships to develop new school facilities.
The meeting focused on finding ways for both boards to move forward collectively after disagreements during the budget process for fiscal year 2019.
“We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different outcome,” Supervisor Diantha McKeel said.
In May, the School Board requested a $96 million bond referendum for school projects that would have appear on the November ballot. It was estimated to require a 7.7-cent increase to the county’s real estate tax rate over five years.
The School Board withdrew its request after the Board of Supervisors refused to include more than $47 million for school projects in a referendum.
More than $81 million of the School Board’s request was designated for the construction of new high school centers and the modernization of existing high schools. It also would have funded an $11.7 million addition and modernization project at Scottsville Elementary School.
At Thursday’s meeting, county staff presented the Public-Private Education and Infrastructure Act, or PPEA, as a potential means of accelerating school projects.
Passed in 2002, the PPEA enables state and local governments in Virginia to authorize private entities to develop or operate qualifying projects with public funding.
Bill Letteri, the county’s chief finance officer, said the legislation was motivated by localities’ frustrations with delays experienced in traditional design and contracting procedures.
“The design and construction teams [in these partnerships] work together. … It allows the construction to proceed very soon and shorten the total length of the project,” Letteri said.
“Sometimes there are real efficiencies that can be gained, and value added to community projects [through the PPEA],” he said.
Under the PPEA, private developers must submit detailed proposals for projects, with or without a formal solicitation from a government entity. The government involved must provide a public comment period of at least 30 days before entering an agreement.
After receiving an unsolicited proposal, the government entity must accept competing proposals for at least 45 days after the original submittal.
Letteri said PPEA projects can be highly complex, and that drafting an ordinance for public-private partnerships would require significant staff time.
“It needs to be worthwhile,” Letteri said. “It needs to be a big project. It needs to bring synergies to what we are trying to do.”
Roger Johnson, the county’s economic development director, facilitated a public-private partnership in his previous job in Wilmington, North Carolina. In that project, a private developer converted an aging parking garage into a mixed-use development with a new public parking garage.
“It’s an example of a community turning a problem into an asset,” Johnson said.
In 2012, the city of Newport News partnered with Newport News Shipbuilding to build a new campus for the Apprentice School, a four-year vocational school that trains students for careers in the shipbuilding industry.
Albemarle schools is pursuing the construction of multiple satellite centers devoted to project-based learning and work experiences for high school students. The first center, budgeted at $35.1 million, is scheduled to open for the 2021-2022 school year.
“[Public-private partnerships] fall squarely on what we are talking about with these centers,” said School Board member David Oberg.
Supervisor Ned Gallaway said Albemarle’s Rio+29 Small Area Plan resembles a public-private partnership.
“The Rio+29 Small Area Plan is telling the [real estate] development community: this is what we would like to see,” Gallaway said. “I would like to challenge us to do the same thing on the education side.”
Letteri said that he and Johnson would provide further information about the PPEA to the Board of Supervisors this fall.
“I’m not sure I would be so inclined to suggest that we go out and do [public-private partnerships],” Letteri said. “It’s just an opportunity. Until you adopt the ordinance and set yourself up to do that, you will never know.”