Four of Albemarle County’s elected officials heard mixed feedback late Monday about the proposed $370.6 million budget for fiscal year 2016.
The town hall at Murray Elementary School — hosted by Supervisors Diantha McKeel and Liz Palmer and School Board members Kate Acuff and Eric Strucko — was the first of nine such meetings to be held in the coming weeks.
“Our current proposed budget really focuses on support for core services [like] fire and rescue and police,” Palmer said. “What we want to have a community discussion about is on funding for additional core services like social services, the schools and environmental protection.”
On March 3, supervisors advertised a real estate tax rate of 82.4 cents per $100 of assessed value, which is 1.5 cents higher than what County Executive Tom Foley recommended. The current real estate tax rate is 79.9 cents. While numerous members of the audience of about 30 supported the move, not all in attendance liked the idea of paying more.
“You’re disproportionally hurting certain segments of the population,” resident Duane Hopper said about raising taxes. Additionally, Hopper said, raising taxes encourages people to move out of Albemarle and that reducing expenses should be considered.
Murray parent Michael Koenig, however, viewed the proposed increase another way, calling it “very modest.”
“We have growth in this county, and a huge chunk of the increase is about more people coming here, not leaving,” Koenig said. “If you want to have a successful state or community, you invest in health, you invest in safety and you invest in education.”
The county officials spent much of the night outlining their needs in four areas: education, public safety, social services and capital improvements.
The school division is facing an approximately $753,000 gap between proposed expenditures and expected revenues. One of the factors contributing to the gap is the School Board’s desire to increase teacher pay by 2 percent and staff pay by 2.3 percent.
Strucko said compensation is key to recruiting and retaining high-quality educators.
“When we look at an entry-level [teacher’s salary], we’re competitive with Fairfax, Arlington, Alexandria and Loudoun,” Strucko said.
“But when you start looking at teachers as they progress through their careers and get more tenure and more experience, the ending salaries are where we’re woefully behind,” Strucko said, noting that the average salary for a teacher nearing the end of his or her career is about $70,000.
Hopper pointed to the cost-of-living difference between Albemarle and Fairfax as one factor contributing to higher pay rates.
But Strucko said teachers nearing retirement in Northern Virginia make about $100,000.
“You can’t explain away that difference with cost-of-living only — there are other factors.”
What’s more, Strucko said, that gap in pay costs the division teachers.
“We lose high-quality, experienced instructors,” he said, “and I think the educational experience of our students suffers because of it.”
Growth is also stretching the police thin.
Albemarle’s police force provides 1.3 officers per 1,000 residents, which ranks 126th of 132 jurisdictions in the commonwealth. While the proposed spending plan recommends adding seven new officers, McKeel said Albemarle will need to add 27 more officers over the next five years to get to 1.5 per 1,000.
“Albemarle County is an urbanizing community, and if you think about it, the urban ring has a greater population really than Charlottesville,” McKeel said, noting that the demand in the urban ring pulls on resources that would normally serve the rural areas, and that Albemarle’s crime rate increased by double digits last year.
“Our police really have some serious issues to tackle,” McKeel said. “The Board of Supervisors is taking very seriously our staffing with the police department.”
Albemarle’s Department of Social Services also is under pressure. As a result of the department being more than 23 positions short, officials said the employees are working at 163 percent of capacity, and that paid overtime expenses have jumped by 94 percent.
“Right now the families that are being served are the families who are deemed at high risk, so we have a lot of families who are at moderate risk who are not being served,” McKeel said.
“That’s a $4 million project, and it’s estimated when it’s fully functional to cost about $1.7 million per year to operate,” Palmer said of the fire station.
“I think we have a facilities deficit,” Strucko said. “I think we’ve spent a couple of decades working the money to try and meet more short-term needs.”
To raise additional capital funding in the coming years, Palmer said the Board of Supervisors is considering a bond referendum and service districts. Service districts provide targeted services to a specific area, rather than to an entire locality, and only individuals living in the service district fund the initiative.
Regardless of any solutions, Murray’s PTO president, Jennifer Winslow, said residents are tired of hearing about Albemarle’s financial woes.
“It is hard to muster support year after year,” Winslow said.
“I don’t want you to leave here tonight losing confidence in the ability of our staff … in being able to provide really excellent education,” Strucko said. “We just want to take it to the next level.”
The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the budget April 1 and a public hearing on the tax rate April 8.