Employees of the city of Charlottesville and community members are calling for revisions to the city’s proposed budget.
Police officers and firefighters were joined by activists and other community members during the public comment portion of Monday’s City Council meeting in advocating for spending measures.
City Manager Tarron Richardson formally presented his proposed $196.6 million budget for fiscal year 2021, which starts July 1, later in the meeting. He also is laying out a $35.3 million Capital Improvement Program and $111 million in other dedicated funds.
The spending plan is a $7.7 million, or 4.11%, increase over the fiscal 2020 budget.
About two dozen police department staff showed up to the meeting to advocate for their needs.
“These officers truly care about the community,” said Officer David Curtis. “That’s why they are all here on their day off.”
Many officers referred to a comment Police Chief RaShall Brackney made to The Daily Progress in 2018, when she said the department was seeing a “mass exodus.” At the time, the department was down 30 officers.
“When we lose good officers, we are less safe,” said Officer Grant Davis. “We don’t ever want to see another headline that says ‘mass exodus.’”
Officers highlighted how the department has no pay scale and that salaries lag behind the Albemarle County and University of Virginia police departments, as well as a dearth of take-home cars.
Department members received a 4.9% pay raise on top of a city-wide 4.1% bump in the fiscal 2020 budget.
The city doesn’t provide take-home cars for all officers, but Brackney has said that a “great majority” of officers receive the vehicles.
Davis said most officers don’t actually live in the city because they can’t afford it.
“Incentivize officers to stay here,” he said. “Continue to invest in us so we can continue to invest in this city.”
Officer Jeffrey Jaeger said the department’s building desperately needs a massive renovation, referencing recent issues with the structure.
In February 2019, city officials discovered leaks in the department’s building after a heavy rain. Subsequent tests were positive for microbial mold spores.
City officials have said no health issues related to mold were reported.
About 10 employees were moved from the basement to another part of City Hall after the mold was discovered.
The city approved contracts for about $57,000 to address the mold and leaks by April 3.
Jaeger said other efforts to improve the building have been funded by the police foundation and the community.
“This facility, in other words, is quite literally a charity case,” he said.
When city councilors asked Richardson about the building and the recent mold work, he alluded to a previous proposal for a massive new administrative complex.
“It’s an old building,” he said. “They do need some major modifications to their particular area.”
In the fall, the city issued a request for proposals billed as design work for the new complex, which would consolidate city and school division offices.
It was canceled two days later, with the city citing the short submission deadline. Richardson later said the proposal was only actually for a space study, not design.
The police department is housed in a building connected to City Hall at 606 E. Market St. that was constructed in 1966.
City officials say the main City Hall structure on the Downtown Mall was constructed in 1925 and expanded in 1967.
More than a dozen firefighters clad in yellow shirts attended Monday’s meeting to push for more personnel.
The department requested $1.3 million for 12 new firefighters to staff ambulances for a department that is stretched thin. Richardson’s proposal does not add any positions.
Last week, Richardson called the staffing problem “an issue I inherited” and said Fire Chief Andrew Baxter needs to look at a long-term fix by reallocating staff.
Greg Wright, president of the city’s firefighters union, told the council that moving around staff is “literally the most dangerous option that exists.”
“Fire departments are our community’s insurance policy against chaos and disaster,” he said. “We are not in an economic downturn. The fiscal health of the city is excellent.”
Firefighter Andy Soccodato said that as the volume of calls continues to increase, staff and residents will be in danger.
“The decision to deny these positions is a hefty gamble,” he said. “Whether the city is choosing to gamble firefighters’ lives or citizens’ lives, it will end in tragedy.”
Mayor Nikuyah Walker said that the city is discussing the staffing issues and wants to make sure the department’s stress isn’t attributable to responding to calls in Albemarle County.
Several community members held signs asking for increased funding for the city’s Police Civilian Review Board.
An initial panel crafted a proposal that called for a budget of $180,000 or at least 1% of the police department’s budget.
Richardson’s proposal includes $150,000 in startup costs for the panel.
Later in Monday’s meeting, schools Superintendent Rosa Atkins was scheduled to present the division’s funding request of $61.7 million. Richardson is only proposing $59.4 million.
The gap comes as officials were at different starting points in crafting their spending plans.
Atkins’ request is a $3.8 million increase over the amended fiscal 2020 allocation, which included $468,000 later approved to hire six teachers for the gifted-education program.
Richardson’s proposal bases funding off the adopted budget that included a $57.36 million allocation.
While his proposal is $2.1 million more than the adopted fiscal 2020 budget, it is only $1.6 million over the current budget as amended.
Richardson’s proposal does not raise any tax rates.
The city has, however, advertised a 2-cent increase in the real estate tax rate, which hasn’t been raised since 1981 and was last lowered in 2008.
The increased rate would provide about $1.6 million in new revenue.
Tax bills, however, will rise as reassessments saw a 7.2% average increase in value.
The council will hold a budget work session on Thursday. Public hearings on the budget proposal are planned for March 16 and April 6, with final approval set for April 14.