During a more than three-hour budget work session on Thursday, Charlottesville City Council made little headway on the fiscal year 2023 budget, but did established that it has too many priorities.
The council also missed deciding how much it wants to increase the city’s property tax rate, even though the deadline is in two weeks.
During a discussion prompted by interim city manager Michael C. Rogers, councilors shared their major priorities for budget funding. While councilors primarily had similar views on what’s important, they listed several major issues as priorities, including school reconfiguration and achievement gap, police reform, mental health reform and affordable housing.
“We’ve got too many priorities,” Councilor Sena Magill said.
Because of city revenue growth, the proposed budget shows an almost $15 million revenue increase. However, the city still needs to pay off debt service and may give a 3% raise to employees.
A point of contention between City Council and the Charlottesville School Board in the upcoming budget has been funding for school reconfiguration. The process involves renovating Buford Middle School and moving grades currently at Walker Upper Elementary into Buford.
During a joint work session on Wednesday, some councilors seemed less than committed to taking on the cost of reconfiguration.
On Thursday, most councilors agreed that they needed to fund the reconfiguration, but debated the cost.
The latest round of designs for Buford came in at $82 million, which is $7 million more than the $75 million budget. That led VMDO Architects, which is leading the project, to look at cost reductions. However, some councilors said they think even the $75 million figure is too high.
“Local governments build schools, that’s like a core competency of what we should be doing. I think that we need to do it,” Councilor Brian Pinkston said. “That said, I don’t think $75 million is the number we’re going to end up with, if we can get a program in a facility that meets 85% or 90% of what’s being asked, but costs $10 million less.”
Vice-Mayor Juandiego Wade, a former school board member, said his top priority was reconfiguration and that the city needs to find ways to fund it.
“The number one priority should be addressing schools,” Wade said. “We need to just get really aggressive and creative in finding different funding.”
He suggested applying for grants for certain aspects of the project.
Magill said that after a conversation earlier in the day with her child, who attends Buford, it became clear to her that renovations to the building need to be a priority.
“It’s serious,” Magill said. “I know we do need to sink a lot of money or tools to bring them up to a place where these are environments that are conducive to learning and good mental health.”
Mayor Lloyd Snook suggested that it’s most important to do the project right the first time by spending the necessary funds.
“If we’re going to spend $65 million to get a project that we’re not happy with, let’s go ahead and spend $70 million or whatever it takes to get something more that we are happy with,” Snook said.
In order to fund reconfiguration, city staff has recommended a tax rate increase of 5 to 10 cents on each $100 of assessed value. During Thursday’s meeting, city councilors almost didn’t get around to discussing the potential increase until Magill brought it up around the time the meeting was slated to end.
The city intends to have the budget balanced and the proposed tax rate ready by Feb. 14, the city’s senior budget analyst Krisy Hammill said. Law requires the city to publicize the proposed budget and tax rate at least 30 days prior to the public hearing on it.
The public hearing will be held March 21.
Councilor Michael Payne advocated for a 10-cent increase, stating it was necessary in order to fund many projects even outside reconfiguration. Without the tax rate increase, the city would be looking at a freeze on capital projects, Payne said.
“Let’s be honest with ourselves and the public if we do go that route [of not raising the tax rate],” Payne said. “It means no new affordable housing projects for about a decade that we haven’t already been committed to.”
Magill voiced similar sentiments, and pointed out that the Weldon Cooper Center’s reports indicate Charlottesville’s tax rate is low when compared to other localities.
Pinkston asked for more time to think on it, but also raised the idea of staggering the tax increase, raising it five cents one year and an additional five cents the next.
By the end of the meeting, councilors had not come to a consensus, and asked for more information from city staff by Monday’s City Council meeting.
City leaders are also currently seeking authorization from the General Assembly to ask voters to approve 1% local sales tax hike. That tax revenue, about $12 million, would go directly to school construction projects. The school board is planning to spend $20,000 to hire a lobbying firm for the rest of the legislative session to get this passed.