By Brian Wheeler
Sunday, November 8, 2009
The day after his fellow Republicans swept the competitive races for the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors,
(Rivanna) was not gloating. In a board meeting that lasted all day on Wednesday, Boyd patiently listened to reports of dire economic conditions and jabs by his colleagues at the promises made by victorious Republican candidates
(Samuel Miller) and
Thomas defeated one-term incumbent Democrat
(Rio) and Snow won the open seat race in the Samuel Miller district over Democrat
. Both winners are local businessmen born and raised in Charlottesville-Albemarle.
The election results will bring a new mix of experience, politics and philosophy to the board starting in January. That could mean big changes in the board’s approach to budgeting, tax rates, economic development and other key issues.
“I don’t know how much it will change,” said Boyd in an interview after a grim work session on the County’s five-year financial plan. “When you run one way, then get elected, you are faced with certain realities once you are on the board. Running for election is different from actually legislating.”
“Even people with experience in the community get faced with having to make fiscal decisions, and it can be different on the inside than from the outside looking in,” said Boyd.
“In the last 20 years, there has been a natural tension on the board, between those that subscribe to a traditional strategy—constant growth is good; we always need to attract new businesses—and a newer strategy, that a community should seek a sustainable level of economic development that over the long haul doesn’t disrupt our environment and quality of life,” said Marshall. “Last week’s election pretty clearly shifted the balance toward the more pro-growth approach.”
A DIFFERENT APPROACH TO BUDGETING
Thomas and Snow both indicated in their campaigns that zero-based budgeting process would be part of their approach to cutting government expenses and avoiding tax increases.
In an interview after the election, both Thomas and Snow said the budget and economic development remained at the top of their priority lists.
“My priority is the budget. We now have a $5.7 million deficit [in this fiscal year],” said Thomas. “We have to start cutting expenses because we don’t have any money and it is not getting any better.”
Boyd, Snow and Thomas all say they believe zero-based budgeting could improve the County’s financial position.
“Instead of staff coming back with budget recommendations [to the board], department heads would build their budgets from the bottom up,” explained Boyd. “One advantage of zero-based budgeting is that instead of staff making decisions about what is essential, the board is forced to do that.”
“When requests for money are made, we need to have [staff] justify that expense,” said Snow in an interview. “You have to be prepared to say why you need it and what will happen if you don’t get it.”
Jeff Werner, a land use field officer for the
Piedmont Environmental Council
(PEC), said in an interview that zero-based budgeting was going to force some tough choices at the board level.
“In the past it has been easy for some of the supervisors to say they support various initiatives, but that they also want to cut taxes,” said Werner. “It is going to require them to take very specific positions on the things they want to cut and I think that will be very interesting.”
CUTTING EXPENSES VS. RAISING TAXES
The board of supervisors that meets in January will start with four votes opposed to any increase of Albemarle’s current 74.2-cent real estate property tax rate. The three Republicans and Democrat Lindsay Dorrier all say they are currently opposed to a staff proposal to increase the rate by 3 cents and maintain that rate for the next five years.
“I don’t want to increase the tax rate at all,” said Thomas. “I would rather look at where we can save some money and programs that we can cut out of the budget. Maybe in the police department, but I don’t have all the facts yet.”
“I would like to keep the tax rate the same as it is now,” said Boyd. “Everybody I know, in business and personally, is having to cut back. Until we reach the point where we are having to sacrifice critical services, I wouldn’t be willing to raise that rate.”
The majority of today’s board, however, has given County Executive Bob Tucker direction to pencil in the higher tax rate to prepare a draft five year financial plan. At the meeting Wednesday, staff reiterated that a 77.2-cent rate would mean the average homeowner would pay the same real-estate taxes as this year because of declining property values. The Board is expected to approve a five year financial plan in December. In April, the new board of Supervisors will set a final tax rate for calendar year 2010.
In the work session Wednesday, the board received new financial projections and learned that the current fiscal year revenues were now $5.7 million below what was budgeted. Second, they were warned that a 74.2-cent tax rate would not even cover the costs to service existing debt in the next capital budget.
With this election, the next board of supervisors can be expected to bring economic development center stage as one tool they will propose to use to improve the county’s fiscal health. In their campaigns, both Thomas and Snow emphasized the need to attract new businesses to the community with more specific economic development plans.
“The entire culture needs to be changed to be more business friendly. We are open for business,” said Thomas. “We need to attract more businesses to Albemarle County.. and I am not speaking of commercial or retail businesses, I am primarily talking about businesses that can hire significant numbers of people.”
The PEC’s Jeff Werner said he expected the next board would be “pre-disposed to grant developers what they want.”
“How much more would they have to approve to be business friendly?” asked Werner. “Look at the pipeline of residential and commercial development that has been approved but not built. To say we need a growth area expansion for new business is absurd.”
Snow said he wanted to focus on the county’s economic development plans, with a focus on development within the designated growth areas.
“We should come up with a system where we facilitate and help [business] rather than drag our feet. There is a problem,” said Snow. “It will be a team effort, I am not coming in with both guns blazing. It will take a mentality of all of us working together.”
ASAP’s Jack Marshall said he hoped the new board would plan carefully for future of the entire community. He also indicated his preference was for the County to support existing local businesses rather than attract new ones.
“I know that the new supervisors are concerned about the long term good of the whole community and trust they will carefully weigh the impact of their decisions on future generations,” said Marshall. “I would urge that we do everything we can to support and strengthen local businesses. Over the long haul, it is not healthy to make great efforts to bring in new businesses. Any economic development efforts should go into sustaining and strengthening what we already have here.”