Near-term pay, staffing among future county expenses
The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the county School Board on Wednesday recommended that County Executive Tom Foley and schools Superintendent Pam Moran plan their respective budgets with raises for county employees.
County officials have said that hiking pay for county employees could be one of the factors that could create an $8.1 million gap between future expenditures and expected revenues. Raises, Albemarle spokeswoman Lee Catlin said, would account for about 25 percent of the shortfall.
Other factors, officials said include staffing increases to meet demand in areas like public safety, social services and fire and rescue. Additionally, Albemarle faces increased health insurance and Comprehensive Services Act costs.
Filling next year’s gap would require a 5 cent increase to the real estate property tax rate. The gap is projected to rise to $13 million in fiscal year 2017 before spiking at an estimated $26 million in fiscal year 2020, officials said. Just over half of the $8.1 million — $4.4 million — is expected to fall on the schools.
The county’s five-year financial plan coalesces the three parts of Albemarle County’s budget: local government, the schools and the capital improvement program. This year marks the first time the schools have been included in this process.
The boards’ decision is based upon a plan to give 2.3 percent raises to classified staff and 2 percent raises to teachers. Those raises are projected, however, to begin in the middle of the next fiscal year rather than when the year starts on July 1, 2015.
“It puts our folks at market [rate], and that is crucial if our focus is on retention and recruitment,” Foley said, noting that starting the raises midyear saves $2 million.
But many School Board members said they felt that the teachers deserve the full raise all year.
“Compensation is the hottest topic that’s been on [the teachers’] minds for the last few months,” School Board chair Ned Gallaway said. “I would advocate that we go to the community with a 2 percent raise effective in July.”
School Board member Kate Acuff agreed.
“We have essentially taxed teachers by increasing class sizes … and not giving them raises,” she said, “because we don’t have the fortitude to go to the community and say ‘We need to pay for a good school system.’”
School Board member Steve Koleszar said the division expects many teachers to retire this year, and said that that will start a “bidding war” for new teachers.
“However far we are behind market now is just going to make it harder to catch up once that bidding war starts,” Koleszar said.
“Two percent in midyear gets you to market, just in a delayed fashion,” Foley responded.
Lori Allshouse, Albemarle’s budget director, said that the salary figures are for planning purposes, and could change as the two sides of local government work through the upcoming budget cycle.
Schools officials have said that the division could cover projected expenditures if no salary increases are adopted, but without new revenues, officials added, they couldn’t add staff to serve the more than 300 new students Albemarle estimates to walk through its doors next year. New initiatives would also be halted without additional revenues.
The Board of Supervisors and School Board last year agreed to lower proposed 2 percent raises for employees to 1 percent to help reduce a $3.9 million deficit the school division faced.
The two boards also discussed the $172.5 million capital improvement plan, which has just been adopted by the Oversight Committee. The five-year CIP funds all mandated and critical projects, such as outstanding obligations and general maintenance.
By 2020, Red Hill Elementary School would get $ million in modernizations, according to the plan. The school division’s classroom modernization request — which asked for $70 million over 10 years — only received $6 million over two years.
During the process, the Oversight Committee reclassified both projects from “maintenance” to “non-maintenance,” which ranks them lower.
“[The Oversight Committee] was trying to establish “the difference between keeping a building [usable] and work that would enhance that building,” said Trevor Henry, Albemarle’s director of facilities development.
Additionally, about $642,000 was approved for a greenhouse for the Western Albemarle High School Environmental Sciences Academy.
Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd said that one concern that he heard in his town hall meeting is that dedicating money to the CIP takes money out of operating expenses.
Supervisor Liz Palmer said she heard the same thing, with parents arguing that they’d rather have an extra teacher than new technology.
The county’s major projects include about $27.6 million for the courts complex, $18.8 million for the Emergency Communications Center’s communication system and about $9.8 million to replace fire and rescue equipment.
The plan — which is based on the current real estate tax rate of 79.9 cents per $100 of assessed value — represents a balanced budget and meets the Board of Supervisors’ goal of a $2 million reserve at the end of five years.
With respect to paying for capital projects, Supervisors Jane Dittmar and Diantha McKeel said they’d like to know more about general obligation bonds and service districts.
“We have a lot of really important, really valuable projects that aren’t going to be funded,” McKeel said. “So we may have a situation where we can put some projects together in a package and take it to citizens in a bond, but I need a lot more information before doing that.”
Koleszar said that, if a bond were brought to the public, communicating what the new revenue would pay for is important.
“If we do something like this, we should do it during a year in which there’s a national election so we have better voter turnout,” Palmer said.
Palmer and Mallek said that they would like to closely analyze individuals using the land use tax credit to make sure it’s being used appropriately.
“I think we need more inspections,” Palmer said. “Are people mowing their field or are they actually haying it?”
McKeel and Palmer also said that they’ve been hearing from real estate agents that property assessments in general have been too low in recent years.
County and schools staff now will begin developing their budgets for next year. Moran plans to present her budget to the School Board on Jan. 15. Foley is slated to present his budget to supervisors on Feb. 19.