Supervisor Liz Palmer speaks to citizens about the five-year financial plan

Albemarle County Supervisor Liz Palmer heard community input and responded to concerns about the upcoming budget cycle Monday at Red Hill Elementary School.

The town hall meeting was the first of six supervisors plan to hold this week to discuss Albemarle’s five-year financial plan.

“We’re trying to get out and let people know that we have the gap, and we don’t know how we’re going to fill it yet,” Palmer said.

Responding to questions about tax increases, Palmer said public opinion differs.

“I’m going to come here and the majority of the people are going to tell me that they don’t want a tax increase, and I’m going to go somewhere else and they’re going to tell me that they want to pay more taxes,” she said. “As an elected official, I have to take into consideration everyone’s concerns.”

Jefferson Area Tea Party President Mike Basile criticized any tax increase, arguing that it will hurt families with moderate to low incomes.

“They’re the ones who are going to get hit,” Basile said. “So why are we going to continue to hit these poor people and middle class people so the county budget can go up a nice steep hill?”

Palmer agreed, but noted that many investments, like sidewalk infrastructure in the growth areas, are needed.

“If we don’t do those things, then property values goes down,” Palmer said.

Paul Hankle also said he felt Albemarle is poised to tax too much.

“My wife and I moved here 15 years ago because land was cheap, taxes were low and the schools were said to be good,” Hankle said. “People are going to leave, and what you’re going to be left with are people who are too rich to be affected or too stupid to know they are being soaked.”

Last year, the Board of Supervisors passed a 3.3 cent real estate tax increase, which brought the tax rate to 79 cents per $100 of assessed value. Seven-tenths of a penny went to mandates to improve water quality in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, nine-tenths of a penny was dedicated to the schools and 1.7 cents were directed into the capital improvement program and other local government needs.

George Stephens said that people in the growth areas require more services than those in the rural areas, and asked if Albemarle has considered a special tax rate for each.

Palmer said that she has received pushback on that idea, and has been told that a property’s value adjusts depending on how close it is to town.

“It’s an interesting thing that we probably ought to be talking about,” Palmer said, noting that one of the supervisors’ approaches to closing the gap will be pursuing legislation.

“Property taxes are a lousy proxy from income,” she said. “Income tax is a pretty good proxy, but we don’t have that authority. We’re trying to look at if the state will allow us to have a cigarette tax … things like that.”

For fiscal year 2016, Albemarle County could face a gap between expected revenues and expenditures as high as $8.1 million. In fiscal year 2017, the gap is projected to rise to $13 million, before spiking at an estimated $26 million in fiscal year 2020. Albemarle County Public Schools’ share of the $8.1 million shortfall could be as high as $4.4 million. The shortfalls would occur if local government and the school division implement 2 percent salary increases for teachers and 2.3 percent raises for classified staff.

If no salary increases are adopted, schools officials said, the division could cover projected expenditures without an increase to taxes. Doing so, however, would limit the division’s ability to add staff to deal with the more-than 300 new students Albemarle expects next year and would not allow for any new programming, such as an expansion of the world languages program from Cale Elementary School to other schools.

“It would also put off for yet another year professional development, which hasn’t been funded for some time,” schools spokesman Phil Giaramita said.

Facing a $3.9 million deficit last year, the Board of Supervisors and School Board lowered 2 percent raises to 1 percent, which saved the schools $1.1 million.

Recently, Giaramita said, the state of the school system’s compensation is beginning to cause Albemarle to miss out on top candidates for jobs.

“It’s not a crisis,” he said, “but we’re starting to get more turndowns on offers to them than was the case.”

“And we have a lot more economically disadvantaged students these days,” Palmer added.

Red Hill Principal Art Stow said between 50 and 55 percent of his students are on free or reduced-price meals.

Palmer also said she would like to see the higher paid school employees pay more for health insurance than the lower paid employees.

With respect to solid waste, Palmer provided the audience with an update on the Ivy Materials and Utilization Center, which is currently being monitored by the state Department of Environmental Quality.

The center sits atop a former landfill. Currently, it operates as a transfer station, meaning that all trash delivered there is moved to another location.

Palmer said that she would like to see the center rehabilitated and that the Board of Supervisors probably will vote on in the issue in December.

“If we don’t have the station, the tiny providers won’t be able to survive, because they can’t afford to haul to Fluvanna,” Palmer said.

Moving forward, Palmer said the supervisors will need to be creative to fill budget gaps.

“We have to find a way to address this other than just real estate tax,” Palmer said. “This group of supervisors isn’t taking anything off the table.”

Supervisor Diantha McKeel and Brad Sheffield plan to hold a town hall from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Senior Center. Supervisors Ann Mallek and Liz Palmer will also hold a town hall Tuesday  from 7:00 to 9 p.m. at Henley Middle School.

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