Council debates ‘new reality’ at retreat
STAUNTON — The Charlottesville City Council began preparing next year’s budget Friday with a one-day retreat to examine its priorities and an assessment of how to move forward.
“We’ve got some very difficult challenges that are coming before us,” said City Manager Maurice Jones at the beginning of the retreat, which was held at the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center in Staunton.
The city’s budget process usually does not begin until later in the year, but city staff wanted to gauge whether the council is willing to make tough choices.
“We’re going to have a lot of competition between what we need to do and what we want to do,” said budget director Leslie Beauregard.
For instance, a provision in the Budget Control Act of 2011 will force the federal government to automatically cut $1.2 trillion in spending over a 10-year period. If an agreement is not made on where those cuts will come, cuts will be made across-the-board beginning on Jan. 1.
“If [Congress] doesn’t make decisions in the next few months after the election, we could see serious reductions,” Jones said. For instance, he added that could mean as much as a 7 percent reduction in the school system’s budget for the current fiscal year.
Councilors also were briefed on the preliminary budget picture, even though Beauregard said there are still many unknowns.
For next year, Beauregard is projecting only a $684,300 increase in local tax revenue and only a slight increase in revenue from licenses and permits. She estimated that $1.3 million used in the current fiscal year to support the school system will not be available, though the needs will still be there. Furthermore, Albemarle County’s revenue-sharing payment for next year will decrease by around $600,000.
Beauregard also projects that there will be increases in expenditures, including a 12 percent increase in health care costs and an increase in retirement benefits.
All together, Beauregard said there is currently a $3.6 million gap in the fiscal year 2014 general government budget given current assumptions. She added that does not include the cost of new initiatives the city might fund, nor a projected $3.8 million deficit in the school system’s budget.
“Hopefully, this is a worst-case scenario and that it can only get better from here,” Beauregard said.
The Council also was asked to provide direction on several new initiatives, including improving safety on the Downtown Mall, expanding the transit system, building a new
structured parking garage and reconfiguring the city’s schools.
Other “big issues” include a human rights task force, improvements at the City Market, and spending more money per year to dramatically increase sidewalks and bike lanes.
The council and staff were broken into groups and asked to identify potential partnerships to save money, service reductions, and initiatives that could be delayed into the future.
After a long discussion, councilors did not eliminate from consideration any of the ideas at this time.
“We need to do [that] thoughtfully,” said Mayor Satyendra Huja. “I think we need to think carefully about these things before we make decisions.”
Another suggestion was for the city to push to reopen conversations with Albemarle County about forming a Regional Transit Authority.
In 2009, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing for such an entity to be formed, but did not authorize a referendum to allow for up to a one-cent sales tax increase to fund expanded operations.
“Because of the way things have been changing at the state level, there may be more of an appetite to allow us to ask our citizens,” Jones said.
The council will hold a work session on the initiatives in late October.
“We want to find as many partnerships to figure out how to pay for all of these,” Beauregard said. “That’s the message I’m hearing.”
New performance system
Councilors were also briefed on a new performance management system called Scorecard that will track how their priorities translate into results. At the last council retreat, in
February, six priorities were identified.
These included reducing poverty by increasing job opportunities for those with low skills; building a comprehensive support system for children; building a multi-model transportation network; and developing a City Market District downtown.
Beauregard identified several initiatives that matched up with each priority. For instance, she collected six years of data for the city’s youth internship program and measured it against how participants went on to become gainfully employed. For the children’s support system, Scorecard will track graduation and truancy rates.
“We had no trouble coming up with a lot of initiatives,” Beauregard said. “We are still struggling though with measurements to outcomes.”
Eventually, the Scorecard system will be open to the public.
“I love the system and the three-dimensionality of it,” said Councilor Kristin Szakos. “I really want us to be paying attention to outcomes and not to outputs. I want to make sure we’re linked to real-world employment rates, neighborhood quality and to educational progress.”
Councilor Kathy Galvin wanted to make sure that the priorities are cross-linked because some initiatives could lead to results in more than one priority.
“There’s a danger of each priority becoming its own silo when in reality reducing poverty through employment is tied to redevelopment, tied to transportation,” Galvin said. “We don’t want to just measure these things for the sake of measuring them.”