Press "Enter" to skip to content

Albemarle supervisors suggest additions to $629M proposed budget

Taxpayers have three more weeks to weigh in on Albemarle County’s proposed $629 million annual budget.

As required by law, county staff has presented a balanced budget proposal to the Board of Supervisors.

Most of the proposed funds will go to Albemarle County Public Schools, and the board is hashing out how it wants to revise the funding plan outlined in the rest of the budget.

Supervisors’ focus is on health and safety, as they’ve asked staff to include funding for more firefighters, emergency workers, a police officer and a sheriff’s deputy. One supervisor has tried to rally support to provide an additional $40,000 for an emergency relief program that helps people facing eviction, but there does not appear to be broad support from his colleagues.

The budget comes with proposed tax increases: The lodging tax would be raised from 8% to 9%, and the personal property tax would be raised to $3.96 per $100 of assessed value. That’s more than the current rate of $3.42, but less than pre-pandemic levels.

Voters can voice concerns to the board about the budget and taxes during public hearings on April 17 and 24.

North Garden firefighters

Albemarle has hired 67 firefighters since 2020, and 50 of them were initially funded by federal money.

The North Garden Fire Company in southern Albemarle is staffed from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday by a combination of full-time firefighters and volunteers. But many of those volunteers are senior citizens and may not be able to continue their work for much longer. Albemarle Fire and Rescue has asked for full-time staff to fill the void. In addition to firefighting, those career firefighters would staff the station’s ambulance.

“Just a couple weeks ago, we had wildfires in this community and our fire department was completely maxed out. We had to send out Mayday to localities to help us,” Supervisor Diantha McKeel of the Jack Jouett District told The Daily Progress. “North Garden is latest group of volunteers that have let us know they can no longer cover their fire station.”

The board is weighing hiring seven full-time firefighters, which would cost the county $122,736 for half the year. That assumes, however, that the county would receive grant money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. If it doesn’t, the county would be on the hook for an additional $275,411.

A deputy and an officer

County Sheriff Chan Bryant has requested an additional four deputies to assist with Virginia’s ongoing mental health crisis. The county has seen an increase in temporary detention orders, often for people undergoing a mental health crisis, which requires the sheriff’s office to transport those individuals to different hospitals across the state.

The board is considering providing one additional deputy at a cost of $201,639.

Scottsville District Supervisor Mike Pruitt has said he is wary about the investment, arguing the money could be better spent on programs, like eviction relief, that keep people from entering the court system at all, thus saving resources for both the court and the sheriff’s office.

No police officers were included in the budget proposal, but the board is moving to add one officer to the county.

“The most common thing I hear from constituents in the urban ring is concern for police and policing,” McKeel said. “Our number one priority is safety and well-being for community. That’s where our focus has to be.”

That full-time officer comes with a price tag of $201,200. Both the officer and the deputy include a one-time fee for equipment and a vehicle.

“We’re adding another police officer knowing we’ve had a request there and they’re short on police officers,” board Chairman Jim Andrews, who represents the Samuel Miller District, told The Daily Progress.

“Staff is looking at what we need to do to realign budget to be able to pay for it,” said Supervisor Bea LaPisto-Kirtley of the Rivanna District.

Berkmar ambulance

After being presented data showing an increase in calls for emergency service at Albemarle Fire Rescue’s station on Berkmar Drive in northern Albemarle, supervisors want to hire more first responders to staff an ambulance at the station.

They are considering bringing on nine full-time emergency responders in order to make sure the ambulance is staffed 24/7. To do so for half the year would cost $542,186.

One ambulance at Berkmar is being fully utilized, but the other doesn’t have enough employees to be fully operational.

“From what I understand, it’s the busiest station so they get pulled away to other areas,” LaPisto-Kirtley said.

While there’s a clear appetite to bring on a second medical unit, the board hasn’t yet committed to hiring a staff of nine. Instead, it may choose to partially staff the ambulance, increasing hours of operation but not enough to provide 24/7 service.

Mental health crisis unit

Last summer, the county launched a program that responds to mental health or substance use emergencies “through a collaborative, trauma-informed, human-centered approach.”

Instead of deploying police to the scene of a mental health crisis, the Human Services Alternative Response Team, or HART, is sent to deescalate the situation, keeping the struggling individual out of jail or the emergency room and instead connecting them to community resources.

The three-person teams consist of a social worker, law enforcement officer and emergency medical technician.

“It’s going well in trial phase and there’s a great deal of interest in having more than just one team. There are limited hours a week available for this, so we’ve opted to have another team,” Andrews said.

HART is only available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The board wants to expand its hours by adding a second unit.

“We were trying to get the police department out of responding to mental health calls because it’s not their field. They’re not trained in mental health services. It didn’t work to have armed police officers showing up to mental health calls,” McKeel said.

Staffing another team for half a year will cost $303,883.

“It’s been an outstanding success. We’re getting many thank-yous from families all over the county,” McKeel said. “But those calls don’t just happen Monday to Friday. So the board is very interested in expanding funding to cover midnights and weekends.”

Emergency eviction relief

After Congress and President Biden passed the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021, Albemarle County received federal dollars to create an emergency relief program for people facing eviction.

That was of particular importance during the pandemic as many people were put out of work and suddenly at risk of not being able to make rent.

The Albemarle County Emergency Relief Program, or ACERP, was designed to keep as many people housed as possible, essentially providing short-term financial relief for people facing an unexpected economic crisis. Someone on the verge of homelessness can apply to the program and receive money to pay their rent or utility bill and remain safely housed.

But that federal money is drying up, and while the program has found a “tremendous need” in the community, the county will have to pay to keep ACERP running.

“Many people in our community live paycheck to paycheck. An unexpected medical expense or car repair could throw you off budget and therefore you might benefit from time-limited, very specific emergency relief,” Kaki Dimock, director of Albemarle Social Services told The Daily Progress.

The department of social services asked for $300,000 to fund the program. County staff’s budget proposal allocates $260,000 to ACERP, leaving a $40,000 gap.

Pruitt is hoping the board can find a way to bridge it.

“Any given Wednesday, you’re going to see dozens and dozens of people facing evictions in our community,” Pruitt told The Daily Progress.

There were 134 evictions in the county in February, the most recent month for which data is available.

“There are about nine evictions for every 100 households in this county, which is insane. We compare ourselves to the city [of Charlottesville] which has about half that despite having several times the rate of poverty,” Pruitt said. “They have poorer people in the city. More people are struggling in the city. And yet they’re not struggling with eviction at the same rate as in Albemarle County.”

For Pruitt, that is a policy issue. And while there are several ways to tackle the problem, he believes one of the most simple and effective is to have a robust eviction relief fund.

Dimock said it’s very hard to gauge exactly how many people are at risk of homelessness, but for those who are, the additional $40,000 could be critical.

“We know we’ve done good important work so far,” Dimock said, noting that over 300 people were approved for assistance between October and March.

“$40,000, while important for people who receive those funds, isn’t going to solve the problem or meet community need,” Dimock said.

The county will have to make bigger, long-term investments to deal with its housing problem. But ACERP keeps people out of the homeless system, a last resort that can be much more expensive for the county. Keeping people from ever entering that system is a good practice, Dimock said.

“It’s better for them. It’s better for their kids. It’s better for the system,” she said.

In one of his suggestions to find the $40,000, Pruitt pointed to a contingency reserve fund of $831,833. County staff has set that money aside in the event the board finds it needs additional monies for some other program in the upcoming fiscal year. But Pruitt argues that public money should be spent on public problems.

“This is yet another circumstance where I worry that our instinct to save money and our caution is leading us to not deal with issues that are plainly in front of us,” he said. “Albemarle is a prosperous community. We don’t have a significant number of people who experience extreme poverty here. But we have some, and they really get shafted in this community by our inability to be responsive to those needs.”


Be First to Comment

    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *