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Virus-forced budget cuts in Albemarle expected to be noticeable

An updated proposed fiscal year 2021 budget for Albemarle County will look different than one that was presented in February due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During its meeting Monday, the county Board of Supervisors voted to postpone a budget public hearing scheduled as part of Monday’s meeting to give the public time to review an updated proposed budget due to shutdowns amid the pandemic.

“Because of the structural changes in the proposed budget that will be coming to the board on April 22, I feel that it would be premature tonight [to hold the public hearing],” County Executive Jeff Richardson said. “The public has not had an opportunity to look at the upcoming proposed changes in the budget for the board to consider and for the public to comment on.”

The board also supported an updated schedule for the proposed FY 21 budget process, which includes an updated budget summary posted online on April 22, a budget work session on April 29, a public hearing on May 6 and a possible second work session on May 11. The board would then approve a budget on May 14.

Earlier this month, Richardson gave the board an economic update for the current year and the upcoming budget, where he said that, overall, the county will have to reduce spending by about $6.24 million this fiscal year and that about $6.8 million, including about $2.5 million from general government, will need to be cut from the FY 21 proposed budget.

On Monday, Richardson said the county is now anticipating to face an approximately $5.7 million shortfall for next year, which equates to almost three cents on the real estate tax rate.

“I would tell this board that there’s no way that this organization, with its size, that we’re going to be able to absorb this and it not be in some way noticeable to us and to the citizens that we serve,” he said. “This is a significant shortfall, but I’m confident that over the next week to two weeks that we’re going to be able to close that shortfall and provide a budget that’s responsible and sound given our situation.”

Richardson said to help rebalance the last quarter of the current budget, the county government has frozen 15 positions and is evaluating additional vacant positions, is holding all budgeted reserves and contingencies, is directing departments to hold on to all discretionary funding, has found mid-year health care savings and is looking at lapsed salaries.

For the updated FY 21 budget, Richardson said there will be no compensation increases, a proposed minimum wage increase will be postponed, approximately 35 positions could be frozen and department budgets will be reduced by 5% to 10%. He said about 75% to 80% of planned fleet replacements will be put on hold to generate one-time savings to help balance the budget.

Approximately 12 new fire-rescue positions to allow for 24/7 staffing of Advanced Life Support ambulances will still be in the proposed budget, Richardson said, as will expenses associated with early voting. Nonprofit funding also might continue.

County staff will be reviewing the economy and will revisit options as necessary.

“That could mean additional structural cuts, or if we see signs of our economy recovering in this community, that could be reconsidering things that we’ve either had to pause, freeze or suspend,” Richardson said.

During a public hearing on the calendar year 2020 tax rates, no one from the public spoke or provided comments through the county’s online commenting system.

In March, the board approved advertising a real estate tax rate with no increase — 85.4 cents per $100 of assessed value. The board can lower, but not raise, the rate from what was advertised.

Supervisors said they had received emails from members of the public about the tax rate, but did not read any into the record. Supervisor Donna Price said many of the emails were specifically addressing concerns with the current economic situation.

“I just want to publicly state that I have reviewed those, I have considered them,” Price said. “I believe that ultimately, however, we must continue to ensure that the county remains a viable entity that can provide the essential services to our constituents, and I support maintaining the tax rate where it is right now.”

During the board’s regular meeting Wednesday, members are scheduled to approve the calendar year 2020 real estate tax rate, among many other items.

After approving tax rates, the board is scheduled to vote on potentially authorizing the county executive to execute an agreement for a public-private partnership with the developer of a proposed mixed-use development.

The development, Albemarle Business Campus, would receive $100,000 from the Albemarle Economic Development Authority through synthetic tax increment financing. As part of the agreement, the developer would reserve 25,000 square feet of Class A office space for a primary business, which, according to the staff report, is a business that generates more than 50% of its revenues from outside of the region.

The agreement is contingent upon the proposed rezoning receiving approval from the Board of Supervisors.

Originally, a project called Royal Fern was proposed by developer Kyle Redinger with a maximum of 300 residential units and a maximum of 125,000 square feet of non-residential space near the intersection of Fifth Street and Old Lynchburg Road, which the Planning Commission recommended denial of in October.

During a Planning Commission work session in February, Redinger presented an updated proposal for the Albemarle Business Campus, with a maximum of 128 residential units proposed and a maximum of 225,000 square feet of non-residential use.

If the agreement is approved, Redinger also will have to provide an enhanced bus shelter and bike racks, multi-use paths, trails and sidewalks in excess of county code requirements, space for for-hire, hailed transport services and a dog park.

Another action item is a proposal to move $200,000 from the county’s Economic Development Fund to the Economic Development Authority for a microloan program administered by the Community Investment Collaborative in response to the COVID-19 emergency.

In March, the board approved removing the general public comment agenda item during the pandemic, which usually allows time for people to speak about items or topics that are not already on the agenda for a public hearing, such as action items.

County spokeswoman Emily Kilroy said that it was recommended for removal as one way to streamline the meeting agendas at least through April.

“We will be evaluating the public hearings tonight and Wednesday night as we continue to refine our process,” she said. “In the meantime, the board continues to encourage the public to share comments, concerns and questions over email [at] bos@albemarle.org.”

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said the Virginia Freedom of Information Act doesn’t require public comment, but if a locality already does it, it should attempt to keep as many avenues open for public comment as possible.

“You wouldn’t want to take away something that you’ve been doing before,” she said. “And I have seen other localities that have provided multiple ways to provide comment from email, to phone calls, to real-time comments through whatever platform they’re using video conferencing or streaming platform that they’re using. I’ve seen comments being read into the record.”

Also Wednesday, the board is also scheduled to hold three public hearings. The first is on a permit for a proposed pavilion at Tandem Friends School and a second is on an application plan for a Sleep Number mattress store along U.S. 29. The Planning Commission recommended both in February.

The last public hearing is on an ordinance to ensure continuity of government during the pandemic. The board approved an emergency version of the ordinance in March.

More information on how to provide comments during Wednesday’s meeting is available at albemarle.org.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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