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City planners endorse $35M capital budget

The Charlottesville Planning Commission on Tuesday unanimously voted to recommend that the City Council adopt a proposed Capital Improvement Program with multiple amendments, including to delay and reduce funding for a parking garage, increase affordable housing funding and provide more funding for “essential parts” of the West Main Streetscape project.

The proposed $160.5 million Capital Improvement Program, which covers five years, includes $35.4 million for fiscal 2022, which starts July 1. The council approves a five-year capital spending plan each year, but only dedicates funding for one year at a time. Further years are included as projections.

The proposal for fiscal year 2022 is a $33.4 million increase over the adopted CIP for fiscal 2021. The city reduced capital project funding in the current year due to the pandemic.

At the joint virtual meeting with City Council Tuesday Krisy Hammill, a city senior budget and management analyst, said the plan is not affordable without significant “revenue enhancements” and last week talked about a possible 10-cent tax rate increase over the course of five years to cover the expense.

“There are other ways to do that,” she said. “… Simply reallocating does not make this more affordable.”

Commissioners wanted to keep most of the projects in the proposed draft, but suggested a number of modifications.

Approximately $10 million was proposed over two years for a parking garage to fulfill a commitment with Albemarle County as part of keeping its courts downtown. Commissioners supported building the minimum to satisfy the committment, but also asking for a year delay to allow time to look at additional options for a “rescoped, more productive garage project that fulfills the commitment to the county and maximizes the value of the site.”

The garage will be constructed at Seventh and Market streets on property currently home to the Lucky 7 convenience store and a Guadalajara Mexican restaurant. A city staff-proposed structure would have 300 parking spaces and retail on the ground level, but an agreement with the county only requires 90 spaces.

“I think the most important thing is that you build two stories, at most, of parking so that a stick built structure [on top] is possible,” Commissioner Rory Stolzenberg said. “ … There’s an opportunity for us to have our cake and eat it, too. But we have to accept building more productive uses on our land, and not wasting this $5.4 million parcel with just a three-story garage and nothing else.”

If the city doesn’t meet construction deadlines, according to the agreement, it must provide 100 dedicated spaces in the existing Market Street Parking Garage or return ownership of Albemarle’s half of the purchased parcel to the county and give the county sole control of the whole property.

Commissioners also said they supported providing funding for “essential parts” of the West Main streetscape project and to use matching funds “for health, safety, and cost and risk prevention.”

The staff-proposed CIP did not include any additional funding for the streetscape project, which has been in the works since 2013 and has received funding from the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Smart Scale process for two of its four phases.

City Council will discuss the West Main project at its Feb. 16 meeting.

A proposed $50 million marker for a schools reconfiguration project, which is still in the initial design phase, drew little discussion from commissioners.

Commissioners supported delaying funding for small area plans and Strategic Investment Area Plan improvements until the city’s comprehensive plan review is complete. They also supported increasing funding for tree planting, increasing funding for new sidewalks, delaying funding for economic development and delaying an East High Street Signalization project.

During the public hearing, 10 people spoke and many encouraged the city to support affordable housing, schools and to make changes to the proposed parking garage.

Former City Councilor Kathy Galvin asked the council to “not pick two initiatives that have been a product of extensive public engagement against each other” when the community cannot fully participate in the discussion due to COVID-19 restrictions, and asked them to please do both the West Main streetscape project and school reconfiguration.

“If a City Council and its Planning Commission continually fail to execute long-term capital projects across different council tenures, then how can we hope to ever promote stable government in accordance with established governing norms within a work environment that empowers city staff as per the commitment the City Council made to the public on January 14,” she said.

City resident Jeff Fogel encouraged the council to increase the tax rate “twice as much” as staff proposed with a progressive tax rate, which the city cannot legally do, and expand the Charlottesville Housing Affordability Program, which offers grants to homeowners who may not otherwise qualify for the city’s elderly and disabled tax relief programs.

“I think that we really need to raise taxes at a considerably higher rate than is being proposed by staff, and not simply for capital projects, but for operational expenses as well,” he said. “We do not have enough money in the city to do what needs to be done.”

City Councilor Michael Payne said he thinks it’s just a “much more difficult budget reality” than the council or the community has realized.

“Because, again, even if we’re cutting West Main, assuming school reconfigurations at $50 million, cutting the parking garage and, again, 10 cents of real estate tax, that means no new affordable housing CIP investments, no new significant general fund expenditures or investments in departments and staff positions,” he said. “There’s a much more difficult conversation than I think we’ve yet gotten to as counselors and the community, so just want to caution about that.”

Mayor Nikuyah Walker said the city has to get a better handle on where its money is going and whether individuals to whom the city gives money are doing what they said they would do.

“I don’t think we’re at a space where we can talk about building our way out of this,” she said. “I don’t think we ever had the conversation around the schools where we thought we would be able to do rehab or reconfiguration or build new buildings without an increase in revenue from somewhere.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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