It was the final public hearing on Albemarle County’s proposed half-billion dollar fiscal 2023 budget but it was the idea of synthetic turf fields and lighting at Darden Towe Park that once again took center stage.
The recommended budget is 20.8% larger than the current year’s original adopted budget of $467.5 million, according to county documents. However, the board approved a mid-year budget adjustment in December that brought the current budget’s total up to $550.1 million.
With all of the expenditures and revenues being put out before the public, it was still the idea of artificial turf fields at Darden Towe that stole the spotlight.
Early Wednesday afternoon, the board could not come to an agreement on what kind of field changes to make at the park. Four synthetic turf fields and lighting had been included in prior county budgets, but were removed in late 2019 after concerns with procurement and never put back in after budget adjustments due to the pandemic.
The proposed fiscal 2023 budget did not have funding for the Darden Towe fields but did include funding for grass fields at the upcoming Biscuit Run Park.
During the public hearing Wednesday night, county residents Kirk Bowers and Don Long expressed opposite opinions — Bowers against the turf and lights, Long in support.
“This is a plastic rug, it’s hard, it hurts if you fall while playing sports. It gets hot and it’s simply not environmentally friendly,” Bowers said, speaking on behalf of the Piedmont Group of the Sierra Club.
Bowers lives in the nearby Key West subdivision and said development of a “soccer park” doesn’t fit in a residential area.
“Economic development is really not appropriate at the expense of our neighborhoods,” he said. “If you want a tournament center, please build in an area that is not in a developed residential area.”
Long, president of the board of the Soccer Organization Charlottesville Area, said there are thousands of soccer players in the community but a tremendous shortage of fields.
“When you increase the number of fields available through synthetic turf that takes the strain off the other fields and it gives people everywhere better fields to play on,” he said.
Even the board was split over replacing current grass fields or installing faux turf and lights at the park.
Supervisors Diantha McKeel and Ned Gallaway and Chair Donna Price supported adding the synthetic turf fields and lights, while Supervisors Ann H. Mallek and Bea LaPisto-Kirtley supported rebuilt natural grass fields and no lights.
Supervisor Jim Andrews said he wants to try synthetic turf at a smaller scale — with one or two turf fields.
Funding for four grass fields in the upcoming Biscuit Run Park will now be moved to a placeholder reserve in the county’s capital improvement plan for future use on items arising from the county’s Strategic Plan and Comprehensive Plan.
Later, some board members asked if there was some money that could be spent on maintenance for the current Darden Towe Park fields.
Albemarle’s CFO Nelsie Birch said maintenance funding is on the operating side, and it’s harder for county staff “to come up with a solution on the fly.”
“The reserves for contingencies would be the place that we would have to go at this point in time, if the board chose to add additional funding to the maintenance of the fields,” she said.
Ahead of the public hearing, the board was supportive of using American Rescue Plan Act reserve money to add $698,410 to the county’s Housing Fund and $1 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia for its new facility near Jack Jouett Middle School.
The board also supported adding approximately $116,800 to the Department of Social Services for support staff. That money will come from the county’s reserve for contingencies.
“All the decisions that we’ve made to date really don’t change [the overall budget total] because it’s been using reserves,” Birch said. “You all made some decisions today related to our reserves to use some capital changes, some position changes.”
The budget proposal includes an increase to the transient occupancy tax charged to hotel guests from 5% to 8%. It also includes an increase to the food and beverage tax, known as the meals tax, raising the rate from 4% to 6%.
The budget proposal also includes a decrease to the personal property tax rate, to help offset an increase in the value of used vehicles.
While the real estate tax rate is not set to increase, average growth in property values means that some homeowners will see higher tax bills next year. Because of increased property values, the effective real estate tax rate — the rate that would levy the same amount of revenue as last year — would be 78.8 cents per $100 of assessed value.
The county’s recommended fiscal year 2023 general fund, which is the main operating account of the county, increased 17% from the current adopted budget, and 8.25% from the current revised budget.
The board is scheduled to adopt a budget on May 4.
More information on the budget process can be found at albemarle.org/government/budget.