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Albemarle supervisors, School Board begin to reckon with uncertain budgets

When the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and School Board met a year ago, they made five-year plans for capital projects and reviewed rosy revenue projections, buoyed by a strong and stable local economy.

This year, though, 225 days into the COVID-19 pandemic, the conversation among both boards focused on current and next fiscal years as both entities adjust to living in a new reality.

“It’s not back to business as usual,” County Executive Jeff Richardson said. “ … We have not recovered, and we have not been able to re-calibrate.”

The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and School Board met Wednesday for their first joint meeting since the pandemic started to begin discussions about next fiscal year’s budget and the capital improvement program.

After a lengthy presentation from county staff members, the boards discussed how to move forward. County staff are not planning for a tax increase in 2021 to support either the operating or capital budget. School Board member Jonno Alcaro asked for more information about what a potential tax rate increase for capital projects would look like.

“I’m not opposed to the decision,” he said. “I would just like to know what the impacts would be.”

Most supervisors said outright that they do not support a rate increase at this time.

No current revenue numbers were presented, but the supervisors will receive a quarterly financial report on Nov. 18. Staff members said they are uncertain about how business-generated revenues will fare long-term, and for how long the county will be affected by the pandemic.

Thus, this year’s budget process won’t include a five-year revenue projection as in previous years, because staff members said they weren’t comfortable with the validity of that information.

County Human Resources Director Lorna Gerome said other localities also did not give staff raises this fiscal year, and that the county will monitor compensation over the next couple of months.

She said the county has not been requiring copays for COVID-19 testing and tele-health, which will extend into 2021.

The county will give its employees some healthcare premium cost relief this calendar year, and there will be no premium increase next calendar year due to a lack of claims this year. Gerome said that this will be the second year in a row that the county hasn’t increased premiums.

The boards are planning to tentatively meet in January to discuss staff compensation.

Much of the meeting, though, focused on capital projects. In April, the county opted to pause or delay many of the capital projects in response to the pandemic. For next fiscal year, the county is looking at a simplified planning process that focuses on restarting those projects as well as possibly adding new projects.

The School Board discussed capital projects in September, but most of the discussion was held in virtual breakout rooms and not accessible to the public. County officials said the school board has a lot of big decisions to make about capital projects after many were delayed or paused as the pandemic got underway.

Construction was put on hold for the new high school center as well as the Crozet Elementary expansion while renovations at Scottsville and Red Hill elementaries moved forward. The center and Crozet are expected to cost about $21.2 million and $20.4 million, respectively.

The capital budget prior to the pandemic did not include funding for several of the division’s top priorities including an expansion of Mountain View Elementary.

Board members said in September that they wanted to prioritize projects aimed at easing capacity issues in the schools such as the Crozet project, which would add 17 classrooms and double the school’s capacity.

The Crozet Elementary project is the biggest issue, said School Board member Kate Acuff.

“Because we are bursting at the seams in Brownsville,” she said. “Having said that, I think this is a prudent course. I mean, we have to look at what money we have. And if things look better in six months, then we can maybe adjust.”

Acuff added that since the Great Recession, the school system has caught up on the planned capital improvements to schools, especially on capacity-related projects.

“We almost never get past trying to find room for kids,” she said. “But I think this is unfortunately the path we need to take.”

For this school year, the division’s enrollment has dropped by about 1,000 students compared to what officials were expecting. That drop is mostly felt at the elementary level and is not equally distributed among the schools.

Supervisor Diantha McKeel suggested that with the enrollment drop, the School Board might find that capacity needs have changed.

“All I’m saying is that we need to look at our capacity issues and not just build based on what was before,” she said.

Ned Gallaway, chairman of the board of Supervisors, and School Board vice-chairwoman Katrina Callsen suggested that virtual learning could be a tool to help the school division address capacity issues.

“But in my head when I hear that we’re down 1,000, I can’t help but think that those thousand are going to come, plus more,” Gallaway said. “The population growth in Albemarle is going to continue.”

School Board member David Oberg said that the current situation “sucks for all of us.” Although he hoped the economic situation wouldn’t resemble 2010, he said the county should opt to build.

He said that 2010 was “the time to build” because there was the opportunity to hire contractors at a much lower cost than usual.

“I know it is painful to spend money at a time when the resources are low, but from what I’ve seen, that’s usually the best way to avoid problems going forward,” he said.

Supervisor Liz Palmer said she didn’t think construction prices were down right now, but if they were to drop would be interested in taking advantage of savings.

Assistant County Executive Trevor Henry said that 2010 and 2020 are not comparable, because the 2010 crash caused many contractors to fold, and the county now sometimes struggles to find qualified vendors.

Henry said county staff would provide a report to the boards with more information.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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