The Charlottesville City Council’s review of the proposed $179.3 million budget for fiscal year 2019 continued last week with a work session on the capital improvement program.  The meeting is the second of several events planned on the city’s spending plan before adoption on April 10.

The March 15 meeting began with a review of questions that had come up from the previous work session on March 7.

City Manager Maurice Jones’ recommended budget allocates $460,000 in funding in fiscal year 2019 for the Charlottesville Housing Affordability Tax Grant program, an increase of $70,000 over the current year.  

The additional funding would allow property owners with incomes less than $25,000 to have their grant amount increased from $375 to $450. Homeowners between $25,000 and $50,000 would see their grant increase from $525 to $625.

Homes with an assessed worth of more than $365,000 are ineligible for the tax grant program.

Mayor Nikuyah Walker had asked for ways to expand the program further.

City budget staff came back with one proposal to increase the threshold from $50,000 to $60,000 as well as to increase the maximum worth to $375,000, the maximum allowed under state law. That would cost taxpayers an additional $210,000 but the grant amounts would not change from the current year.

“This will give us approximately another 167 additional households based on previous Census data,” said Ryan Davidson, the city’s senior budget management analyst.

Another option in which grant amounts, income thresholds and the maximum property value would change would cost an additional $280,000.

Council did not make a final determination on how to proceed.

Walker wants to find a way to tie grants to property assessment increases to help assist homeowners feeling the pressure of higher tax bills.

In calendar year 2013, 901 households took advantage of the program. That dropped to 708 in calendar year 2017.

The city also will spend $733,000 on rent and tax relief for individuals who are over the age of 65.

Council also discussed additional funding for the Community Attention Youth Internship Program. The proposed budget anticipates spending $121,726 on the program in the next fiscal year.

Walker has sought to increase the number of slots as well as the hourly stipend.

“Right now they are earning $5 per hour in this program,” Walker said.

Walker has asked to increase that amount to $8 an hour to encourage more participation. That would cost an additional $43,300. To increase the number of positions to 150 per summer would cost an additional $45,915.

Councilor Mike Signer said he supports the program but the additional cost is a large amount of money that could go to other similar purposes.

“I’m very compelled by the cause but want to hear a bit more,” Signer said, adding he would support increasing the wage as a first step.

Council agreed to increase the stipend but opted to wait on a determination until after they review the recommendations of the Agency Budget Review Team, a city-county group that reviews proposals from nonprofit groups. That discussion is scheduled for the March 29 work session.

Lodging tax increase?

Some councilors have discussed the idea of raising the lodging as a way to raise revenue for any spending increases planned for this year.

A one percent increase in the lodging tax would bring in over $728,571 in additional revenue. Council will decide whether or not to proceed at its meeting tonight.

Signer will not be present at that meeting but indicated he does not support the increase.

Galvin was also skeptical of increasing the tax at this time. She said she wants to hold a budget work session over the summer to discuss whether the city’s existing programs are meeting their goals.

“I think we are going to have major discussions about raising taxes next year but I want to be very informed and know whether the programs we have now are working,” she said.

Capital budget

The bulk of the meeting dealt with the projected $113.248 million five-year capital improvement program, $23.4 million of which would be spent in fiscal year 2019.

The proposed budget calls for a total of $10.25 million in funding for the West Main Streetscape, a project in the planning states since 2013. The total project has an estimated price tag of $31 million. Council decided last year to split it into several phases after an application for funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation did not qualify.

“The dollars we have in here for West Main represents funding to provide construction of phase 1, design of all phases and the construction documents for phase 2,” Davidson said.

The city will make another VDOT Smart Scale application for the project this year.

New projects in the five-year budget this year include $3.7 million to renovate the city’s fire station on the U.S. 250 bypass.

“It was built in 1961 with 3,000 square feet so the total footprint is just too small for everything we do today,” said fire chief Andrew Baxter. He added the bays are not big enough for all fire trucks and there is no fire protection service in the station.

Baxter said the fire department already has $2.5 million reserved for the project and the new line item would allow the project to move forward.

Downtown mall trees

The capital budget for fiscal year 2019 contains $100,000 for planning for the future of the trees on the Downtown Mall.

“This $100,000 is to do a study to find out the scope of work that’s going to be needed for these trees and then to come up with a plan moving forward on how to care for them,” Davidson said.

In 2015, landscape architect Jim Urban conducted a report on the health of the trees on the mall, some of which are now over 40 years old.

“He gave us a study of the trees on the mall along with some options to consider for how to ensure their lifecycle over the long haul,” said parks direction Brian Daly. “There are some disagreements among very well-intentioned folks about the means and methods of preserving the trees.”

Daly said the study is to try to keep existing trees alive for as long as possible.

Council also agreed to spend $50,000 on an engineering study for a tunnel underneath the railroad tracks at Meadow Creek. That would be a major step toward a future commuter trail connecting the John Warner Parkway and Hillsdale Drive.

“Some of see this as an important first step to even be able to eligible for [VDOT] funding,” said Vice Mayor Heather Hill.

If the city decides to seek a “transportation alternative” grant from VDOT, Daly said the chances of funding would be increased.

Councilor Wes Bellamy was absent from the meeting.