(L-R) Blue Ribbon Commission members Cole Hendrix, Matthew Trowbridge, Ernest Chambers, and Steve Runkle

In advance of Election Day on Nov. 3, Charlottesville Tomorrow will once again mail out in-depth nonpartisan voter guides, featuring exclusive one-on-one interviews with all 25 candidates for Albemarle County Board of Supervisors, Charlottesville City Council and both local school boards.  In the days before the election, we will also feature their responses to several important questions about key quality of life issues so that you can compare candidates’ answers and make an informed choice.

Charlottesville Tomorrow’s 2015 Election Center website features links to the full written transcript and audio of candidate interviews, copies of our 2015 voter guide, information on where to vote, and more.  All the following passages are excerpts from our interviews.

CHARLOTTESVILLE CITY COUNCIL
FIRST IN A SERIES

What steps should Council and the School Board take to help build a more sustainable school budget?



Three at-large seats available

Scott Bandy (Libertarian)

Sustainable. That word has been the headache and bane of elected councilors and citizens who have wanted far better for Charlottesville. Sustainable. The Libertarian in me says “sustainable” could be used to mean anything. I realize that the search by those that have been elected has been for a permanent means of revenue that can close that gap and… it’s an in perpetuity mindset.

Sustainable is… it’s so many things but what it isn’t is keeping the school system sufficiently operating. Sufficiently seeing that the teachers are, well, remunerated for their service in educating our young people, tomorrow’s citizens.

I had a chance to read… before I came in here today, I glanced over at… I’m sure that there’s a more current update of it, but the 2013 Blue Ribbon Commission recommendations is out there somewhere. And, again with the semantics. They didn’t make recommendations but they said “we would offer these as alternatives.”  

There was like a bemoaning of well, “go with these alternatives” and it’s like a litmus test for leadership. No it’s not, it’s just simply not being able to come out and say no matter how painful it is, the course of action that needs to be taken.  As a Libertarian I am frosted that anything could raise assessments and taxes further then they have been.

Oh, sure, now there are some people out there, you know, primarily progressives, too, that insist “well you know, it’s our civic duty,” you know, well, there are people out there suffering. That’s why there’s an entirely different debate going on about jobs in the area. There are people struggling to just have the income for themselves to not just keep up with their taxes, but mortgages, bills such as the gas and electricity and water and of course the stormwater fee which is really a tax in disguise, but for the sake of trying to get along and the fact that it takes more than one Councilor to get anything done with a vote on any proposal through City Council. I just see it that way.

Wes Bellamy (D)

Well, I think there’s a few things that need to happen first and before I go into largely saying we need to X, Y, and Z, I would like to sit down with every school board member, kind of see their vision for where they want to go, and also talk to my fellow colleagues who will be on Council and, again, this is if elected because there’s no shoe-in, there’s no guarantee that anything’s going to happen in November.

But if elected, as an educator and as a teacher, I think I bring a different perspective. I know the needs and the wants of not only students but teachers in the class room. Having a degree, a master’s degree and working on a doctoral degree in education administration, I know kind of the fiscal practices and the things that are needed in order to run a school. What you may need from a central office perspective to make sure that your school is efficient, your school system and your school division is efficient. I know those things. That’s a unique perspective that I will bring to Council. When we’re talking about the things that the schools are asking for, or why is it that they always need money or why do they need this or why do they need that, I have a unique position and can say “this is why, because you need X, Y and Z in order for students to be in an environment conducive for learning.” I’m just looking forward to sitting down, talking with everybody, and formalizing a game plan. I don’t know if Council and our school board collectively have one game plan. In order for us to move forward, we have to have a game plan that everyone agrees upon. Or even if you say, “I may not completely 100 percent agree but I’m not going to do anything to derail the game plan.” This is what is best for our children, so let’s make that happen.

Kathy Galvin (D) * Incumbent

Well I pushed for the Blue Ribbon Commission over two years ago now and over a year ago a report was handed to the council.  That report has yet to be scrutinized and then translated into policies and actions.  The one thing we did do was wind up raising our meals tax by one percent.  I believe we were put in a position last year, that was in a way, caught by surprise.  We didn’t have the resources to balance our budget.  Councilors kept adding to the services that we would deliver.  I saw no other choice but to raise the tax.  Going forward the Blue Ribbon Commission did give us some pretty good non-tax revenue strategies to raise revenue.  One of them was to reassess how we do our assessments.  I think we have got to take a serious look at that process.  I have been assured by our city manager that’s happening but we have seen nothing yet before us.  So that was a major recommendation of the Blue Ribbon Commission.  I want to see that done and I want to see the results.  The other thing that we need to do is really be focused on increasing home ownership in the city.  We are at something like 38 percent of our housing stock is home ownership, compared to the state of Virginia at 65 percent, we are really low.  Now we are a university town, but we need to take advantage of the fact that with the student housing that has been growing we have now what has been kind of a single-family detached housing type that is now freeing up in our neighborhoods.  We need to actively engage into transforming them back into single family homes that can be available to anybody of any income level with the right supports.

The other thing, part and parcel with that, is to expand workforce housing.  We have something like 30,000 people that work in the city and only 7,000 of them live here.  That creates a huge commute problem both in terms of traffic and air quality and runoff problems with our rivers.  So I think solving that problem, expanding within our city every different kind of housing type to accommodate home ownership, from small lot housing, single family detached, to townhouses, to condominiums I think would be very beneficial to the city and also let a lot of the people that work for the city and in the city live in the city.  

The other thing that was brought to our attention is that we are not collecting fees from small landlords, small landlords in the city that lease to students.  That means we don’t get any money for business licenses and we don’t have any access to those buildings to do inspections.  That leaves the students vulnerable, the neighborhood vulnerable and it means that the city is not getting the revenue.

And finally, it’s something that is long overdue and it was recommended by the Blue Ribbon Commission, we need to really understand what we are losing in terms of tax revenue by the fact that the University of Virginia owns a lot of the property in the city.  The payment in lieu of taxes, the PILOT, is a device that’s used all over the country.  Yale, for example, pays a PILOT to New Haven.  We do get compensation for our bus service, for example, and for some of our fire department services, but I think we need some engagement with the university in a much more concerted way to look at what we need by way of additional revenue, or in-kind, for example working with us to build that workforce housing, for example working with us to improve our infrastructure like on West Main Street.  This is a partnership and we need to start getting to table more often to see where we can actually work together.

Those were the non-tax revenue generating recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Commission and I think if we start doing that we are going to start seeing more stronger revenue streams coming in to the city without raising any more taxes.  And then the one percent meals tax that we raised last year was that magic $2 million a year that the Blue Ribbon Commission said was the ongoing shortfall every year.

Anson Parker (R)

One of the things that’s going on right now over at UVa is that they’re trying to attracted STEM women, science, technology, engineering, math, and they’re having a hard time keeping these highly-qualified technical women employed. The number one concern for a lot of these women is a good education and an affordable education for their kids. And if they live out in the county, having a place for their kids go to school that isn’t an extra 40 minutes on their day. I think if UVa really wants to attract the kind of women that it says it wants to attract, I think they should reach out to the school systems and…  One of the things they address in the Blue Ribbon Commission is that city schools only charges I think $1,100 for the first student where Albemarle charges $4,400 or something like that.

I think UVa should be looking at making up that difference if it really wants to attract the kind of women it says it does.

Mike Signer (D)

I have reviewed the Blue Ribbon Commission report which is a very valuable and important document with some very bright people who care deeply about this commitment in our budget. And our public schools, again, they’re the biggest item in the Charlottesville budget so the challenge of funding them sustainably is, as many people know, a long-term one. The schools, the state’s contribution to the school budget locally dropped by some measures about a third and that happened to localities around Virginia. It looks like it may be increased somewhat, hopefully, under the present governor. That’s some recent news. But we still have to do work to come up with a sustainable solution.

One of the recommendations of the commission that was [implemented] was a small increase in the meals tax. It’s still very controversial. There were some other components that were not touched the last time around. They include looking at our property tax assessments and looking at a lodging tax. Everything ought to be on the table that’s reasonable and that’s evidence-based and that was examined by this Blue Ribbon Commission.

The budgetary process is very complicated as everyone knows, and you want an empathetic, smart approach to it. The one thing that was not examined by the Blue Ribbon Commission was efficiencies and they said that it was extremely important to look at. They just didn’t have the bandwidth to do it. So I think it’s important that we put into place a process and I’m having conversations with people right now maybe about a Blue Ribbon Commission on efficiencies that would be similarly constructed with experts in our community that could take an even-handed approach towards where are there savings that would not hurt our schools but maybe even would help them and that would have the support of the kind of leaders that are on a Blue Ribbon Commission. So I think we need to look at both sides of the ledger at expenses and at savings.
 

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