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City officials talk path forward for funding schools project at budget work session

Charlottesville City Council is looking at ways to fund the renovation and expansion of Buford Middle School after debating whether it is even possible to pay for it.

Interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers made a recommendation to delay funding of the schools reconfiguration project at a City Council meeting last month. But at Thursday’s meeting, the city’s senior budget analyst provided a potential budget amendment that could allow the city to fund up to $68.8 million of the project.

Senior Budget & Management Analyst Krisy Hammill presented two scenarios as a framework for making a decision. One would require the city to use $54 million in bond funds along with $14.8 million from other cash sources, including potential American Rescue Act Plan funds from the schools and surplus funds from the current budget. Hammill said the city is estimating over $12 million in surplus. The other scenario would require the city to use $50 million in bond funds with $18.8 million from the other cash sources. The reconfiguration project option proposed by the school board is estimated to cost $76.8 million. An alternative $68.8 million option was presented by the developer but would delay construction on one of Buford’s buildings that includes the auditorium.

Mayor Lloyd Snook said he met with Schools Superintendent Royal Gurley and School Board Chair Lisa Larson-Torres earlier in the week and said they agreed on moving forward with the $68.8 million option.

‘We got to the point where they were comfortable with the $68.8 million project with the recognition that we would work on trying to find the money going forward for the auditorium improvements,” Snook said.

Snook said he told Gurley and Larson-Torres that he believed it was unlikely that three councilors would vote to fully fund the $76.8 million proposal but that he thought councilors would support a project bond funds like the scenarios Hammill presented.

In October, the council, including Snook and council members Sena Magill and Michael Payne, voted unanimously to back the $75 million plan proposed by the school board. But after a proposed sales tax bill that the city was counting on to help fund the project didn’t pass the House of Delegates, councilors have been less eager to spend the full amount on the project when considering other priorities like affordable housing.

At the March 21 meeting, Rogers recommended the city hike the real estate tax rate by two cents and set the funds aside in the city’s capital projects fund as the beginning of an annual program to pay for school reconfiguration.

“[I recommend we] postpone any drawdowns of upcoming reconfiguration costs until a later date to give city council and staff and the city’s financial advisor an opportunity to work on a five- to 10-year funding plan,” Rogers said at the March meeting. “I also recommend that the City Manager’s Office begin to retool the city’s Capital Improvement Program to make adequate plans for necessary projects for both schools and city government.”

At a community budget forum held March 23, Rogers said he felt his recommendation to delay funding the project may have been “misunderstood.”

“It was an attempt to get us at least moving in the right direction of a solution,” he said.

The city will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget at the City Council meeting at 6:30 p.m on Monday. There will be an additional budget work session April 7 and City Council will vote to finalize and approve the budget April 12.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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