As the world around it ground to a halt, Charlottesville City Council tried its best to continue with business as usual.
The chambers were unusually empty for Monday’s council meeting amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Attendance at the meeting was limited and discouraged, with occupancy capped at 30 people. Fewer than 10 people showed up, with trash bags covering a majority of the seats in chambers. About 33 people signed up to participate online.
Earlier in the day, the city announced that beginning Tuesday it would operate with only essential employees after the Thomas Jefferson Health District announced that a Charlottesville resident tested positive for the virus. The limited staffing plan will remain in effect for two weeks and be reevaluated on March 29.
The Virginia Department of Health reported 51 cases in the state as of Monday afternoon, but the number didn’t reflect the local case. Two people have died from the virus in Virginia.
More and more events were canceled throughout the city Monday and businesses started to shut their doors. Meetings of all city boards and commissions were canceled, with the council the only body still meeting.
The council announced at the start of its meeting that the Commissioner of the Revenue, Treasurer and Utility Billing offices will be closed to walk-ins until at least April 1.
City Manager Tarron Richardson said the city soon will limit the hours of Neighborhood Development Services, as well.
“We have stopped person-to-person contact in terms of our customer service operations in the city,” he said.
During public comment, Elaina Mangione, who owns Mangione’s on Main, asked the city to forgive meals tax payments for February and March and suspend it for the foreseeable future to combat a decline in business.
“Those of us that will be most affected are in a hospitality industry,” she said. “Some of our restaurants in the community may not be able to recover. … If and when we close, there is a very large sector of our population that will be unable to earn a single dollar.”
Others asked for similar tax forgiveness, but The Daily Progress observed the meeting through electronic means and the names of commenters were unavailable as of press time.
Councilor Heather Hill responded by reading an email from Commissioner of the Revenue Todd Divers. Divers said the taxes are collected from customers and held in a trust. His email said funds should not be commingled with operating funds to pay expenses.
“Obviously, such taxes are a direct reflection of the gross revenue generated in that prior month. It follows then, that if business is down then meals and lodging tax payments will be down as well. Businesses are not expected to remit taxes that were never collected,” Divers wrote in the email. “Pushing back due dates will tempt businesses to use trust tax revenue as operating revenue. This will only make a bad situation worse for those businesses who are already struggling.”
Divers said his office has discretion to forgive penalties and interest for late filings. Mayor Nikuyah Walker supported Divers’ stance.
“We’re not being insensitive, it’s just at this point that’s not an avenue that we want to support,” Walker said.
Councilor Lloyd Snook said state law prohibits the money from being used for operating expenses and carries a charge of embezzlement.
Despite all the closures and requests for people to stay away, the council was required to hold a hearing on the $196.7 million proposed budget for fiscal 2021, which begins July 1, and the proposed tax rate.
The proposed budget has been contentious because it recommends about $1.8 million less than the school division has requested and doesn’t provide any additional firefighters, although the department requested 12 positions to help staff ambulances.
None of that contention was present on Monday as the council chambers sat mostly empty. Residents were able to sign up to view the meeting remotely and participate electronically in the public hearing.
Many speakers urged the city to invest more money to tackle climate change.
“We cannot wait another year to start tackling this issue,” said Donna Shaunesey, president of the local Sierra Club.
Councilor Michael Payne said it’s “disappointing” that the city led the state in setting a carbon emissions goal last year, but Albemarle County has taken more steps.
“I think climate change needs to be one of the top priorities in the budget,” he said. “It’s something that we definitely need to invest in as a top priority.”
Peter Krebs, of the Piedmont Environmental Council, urged more investment in sidewalks and bicycle and pedestrian improvements. Activist Walt Heinecke called for increased funding toward affordable housing. The wife of a firefighter spoke also electronically to urge more investment in first responders, but her name was unavailable as of press time.
A main point of contention is that the school division is requesting about $61.3 million, but Richardson’s budget proposes $59.4 million. At a work session last week, the council supported cuts that would give an additional $626,000 to the school division.
School Board member Lisa Larson-Torres urged the council to increase its funding for the school division in order to boost equity measures.
“We are dependent on you, City Council, to fund and support us in this work,” she said.
Although the city advertised a public hearing on a 2-cent increase in the real estate tax rate, the council has indicated it doesn’t support a higher rate. The levy would remain at 95 cents per $100 of assessed value.
Most property owners will see their tax bills increase, however, as the latest assessments were up an average of 7.2%.
Employees are slated to receive a 2% cost-of-living increase, which will cost about $1.04 million.
The council also is planning to use $200,000 to revise the housing affordability program, which provides real estate tax relief based on income levels for owners of a home valued at $375,000 or less.
The council had been considering a $389,000 proposal to raise the income threshold and add a fourth tier of relief.
The proposal would have increased the top income threshold from $55,000 to $60,000. The program allows varying levels of relief, giving full relief to those making $25,000 or less and the council is considering increasing that to $35,000.
The council asked for proposals for not adding a fourth tier that provides $2,000 in relief for those making between $35,000 and $45,000. The existing tiers provide $500, $750, $1,000 and full relief.
A second public hearing is scheduled for April 6, with final approval planned for April 14.
However, Walker said the city might extend the budget process, but has limited options available under state law.
The council said the March 24 community budget forum and March 26 work session are likely going to be either canceled or altered.
City Attorney John Blair said city code carries an April 15 deadline to approve the budget, but that could be waived based on state code that requires approval by June 30.
“I think it’s important to note that these dates are in flux right now,” Councilor Heather Hill said. “And this budget is in flux.”
Later in the meeting, the council removed conditions on the special-use permit that governed the operating hours of The Haven until the end of the local declaration of emergency ends. It would allow the facility to operate as a full shelter rather than just a day shelter.