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Tuesday forum a chance to help shape Charlottesville's budget

Charlottesville has an extra $21.7 million in its coffers, a seemingly pleasant surplus as the city prepares its budget for the upcoming fiscal year.

But City Manager Sam Sanders isn’t celebrating.

“Surpluses don’t excite me,” he told The Daily Progress.

Sanders said that roughly a third of the surplus is the result of staff vacancies at Charlottesville’s chronically understaffed City Hall. Filling those vacancies, and paying employees competitive salaries, is one of his top priorities this budget season.

On Tuesday evening, Sanders will kick off that season with a budget forum at Carver Recreation Center. There, he will be speaking with residents about the city’s budget proposal, outlining his priorities and asking in which public services residents would like to see the city invest. And he’ll be explaining why exactly the surplus is not necessarily good news.

Sanders organized a similar event last year, hoping to educate the public on his budget proposal, a process that takes a city manager months to complete, his biggest task of the year. Last year’s forum was not as interactive as Sanders said he would have liked, so he’s changed the format to increase community engagement.

“The intention of this is to have an opportunity to hear from the public together,” he said.

Feedback he receives Tuesday could meaningfully change how the city allocates its funds, Sanders said.

“If I were to hear from residents that sidewalks are a top priority, that motivates me to look at sidewalks again and how we’re funding it,” he said. “That could be repeated over a number of topics.”

Tuesday’s feedback will indicate to Sanders what parts of his budget should be adjusted. In March, he will take the budget to City Council for approval, with Council making revisions of its own.

“They rip it apart,” he said. “But it’s an organized ripping apart.”

Over a series of work sessions, Council will break down the budget proposal’s finer points, with Sanders explaining his and city staff’s thought processes when crafting the proposal.

“The things we didn’t put in, what are those things? What would it take to do more of those things?” he said. “We go through revenue, expenses, how we fund nonprofits, what we are doing to meet primary objectives in affordable housing, transportation, climate action and others.”

“I put it all together and we break it all apart to put it all back together again for them to vote on it in April,” he said.

There isn’t enough money to do everything at once, so Sanders put his objectives into different tiers. Tier 1 will receive the bulk of the city’s money, with less going to Tier 2 and even less to Tier 3. His top priorities include affordable housing and “organizational excellence.”

The latter means investing in City Hall staff. For years, Charlottesville’s government has been severely understaffed. In what many called a dysfunctional and toxic atmosphere, city workers frequently left the job, leaving significant vacancies and not nearly enough people to respond to the requests of residents.

In 2020, there were 131 regular position vacancies at City Hall. Two years later, it increased to 221, and then 235 vacancies at the start of 2023. Charlottesville went through a number of city managers during that same time period, an indication of the turmoil that plagued City Hall for years.

With Sanders named as permanent city manager last July, the city has regained some stability, and Sanders said he wants a stable group of employees working under and around him. For the most part, achieving that stability will mean higher wages.

“We’ve been out of whack with the regional market for some time,” he said of Charlottesville’s compensation package, as nearby localities such as Albemarle County often offer better salaries. “We’ve known that and haven’t done anything about it.”

That investment would allow the city not just to attract more talented people, but to keep them. With fewer vacancies, the city will have more staff and be better able to more effectively complete their long list of responsibilities, according to Sanders.

“Part of what I’ve been saying since I’ve been city manager is that this group of employees are very good, but they’ve been through a lot,” he said. “There’s a lot that explains why we’re not performing optimally.”

Does he expect to have some trouble convincing residents that the investment would be worth it?

“Sure, because it’s going to be very expensive,” he said. “I want to make the connection for residents that when you complain about performance of government, you can tie that back to things, and I am offering that you can tie it back to compensation, culture and job satisfaction and happiness or lack thereof.”

“I ask staff that service and impact are what they eat and breath every day, and I can’t expect that of them if they’re coming to work unhappy,” he continued.

The $21.7 million budget surplus is an indication that, with its current compensation package, the city is struggling to attract and retain talent.

“A big portion of the surplus is the number of vacancies that exist within city organization that we are struggling to fill,” he said.

Digging into the surplus numbers, Sanders learned that over a third was tied to job vacancies.

“That’s not a good thing, because really it means that’s not a surplus. I was supposed to spend that money, I just didn’t,” he said. “Why is it we can’t fill those positions?”

If Sanders can convince the public and Council that an investment in city staff will pay dividends, Charlottesville can make a meaningful step toward replenishing a government that sorely needs reinforcements, Sanders said.

Tuesday’s forum will take place from 6 to 8 p.m.


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