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WATCH NOW: Long-sought capital projects funded in proposed Albemarle budget

Second in a three-part series.

Projects to address a number of long-time community needs and wants could be started in the coming years with funds from Albemarle County’s upcoming capital budget.

The county’s proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget includes local funding to support transportation projects and money for a portion of Albemarle’s Circuit Court and General District Court project, as well as $16.9 million for the school division.

As the county continues to grow, residents have pointed broadly at infrastructure needs — mainly around schools and roads — as reasons why the Board of Supervisors should not approve new development.

During Fiscal Years 2016 through 2020, Albemarle spent $175.9 million on capital projects, according to county data, of which $101 million went to the school division. That includes $35 million from a bond referendum passed in 2016.

The Capital Improvement Plan adopted for FY 2016 projected $156.6 million in expenditures for those five years. The county’s capital budget is the first year of each five-year CIP.

School-related projects made up nearly 60% of Albemarle’s capital spending. Between 2016 and 2020, the division has spent the most money — $37.36 million — on its school maintenance and replacement program, which covers HVAC and roof replacements as well as painting and other projects.

“I think that’s really important that we have been able to invest and maintain our current buildings,” said Rosalyn Schmitt, chief operations officer for the school division.

Public safety, including the Pantops Public Safety Station and the Regional Firearms Training Center, comprised 18% of capital spending from Fiscal Years 2016 to 2020.

Despite the county’s lack of a dedicated public works department, that functional area had the third-highest expenditure of capital funds over the five-year period, with $14.1 million spent on projects including the Ivy Materials Utilization Center and county-owned facilities maintenance and replacement projects.

About $9.3 million went toward community development — mainly to support sidewalk projects in various parts of Albemarle and $2 million to the county’s Acquisition of Conservation Easements program. The county spent $8.5 million on parks and recreation-related projects, with about half of that money going to maintenance and replacement projects at county parks and parks jointly owned with the city of Charlottesville.

The process for determining which projects get funding through the CIP has changed a number of times over the years, but county staff said project recommendations are pulled from the Board of Supervisors’ Strategic Plan and the county’s Comprehensive Plan, as well as other guiding documents and policies, and the board gives input at the start of each year’s process.

“We would then get requests in, and in the old days, a staff team would begin to evaluate a lot of the projects, looking at health and public safety risks or state-mandated requirements,” said Andy Bowman, Albemarle’s chief of budget. “There’s criteria that was looked at, and then it went to something called the Oversight Committee, and then they would take that information and provide a recommendation to the county executive.”

In 2019, county and division staff overhauled the decision-making process to ensure more collaboration between the Board of Supervisors and School Board and more discussion about what the county can afford.

Due to the pandemic, some of Albemarle’s capital projects planned for the 2021 fiscal year were initially paused, but approximately $34.3 million was appropriated in January for a number of projects — including $1.68 million for a park entrance, access road, parking, a vault toilet and trails as part of the first phase of Biscuit Run Park.

The county does not have a five-year CIP in its proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget.

“We didn’t do a five-year outlook because of all the uncertainty in the pandemic,” Bowman said. “It was really focused on everything we paused, let’s take a look at what we’re going to unpause in 2021 and 2022.”

For the coming fiscal year, the county is continuing its steady pace of working through projects, including some bigger-ticket items than in years past. The $40 million courts project — of which $25 million for construction is included in the FY22 capital budget — would be the largest non-school project in years.

“It’s really guided by the agreement the city and county made a few years ago,” Bowman said.

The county’s Transportation Leveraging Program is receiving $3 million in the FY22 budget, which will be used to help secure state funding for the county’s transportation needs.

A more recent addition to the budget is a new transportation planner position that originally had been frozen due to the pandemic. The position will now be funded out of the capital budget and will support capital projects related to transportation.

“You understand the complexity of the environment that we work in and our relationship with [the Virginia Department of Transportation],” Deputy County Executive Doug Walker told supervisors at a recent budget work session. “You understand how well we have recently scored with respect to the Smart Scale projects and how much money that we’re putting into [VDOT] revenue sharing. What we really need is more of an ability on the local side to be able to manage that work.”

Schools

The FY22 capital budget for schools includes $6.2 million for an expansion at Mountain View Elementary. The school division also has consistently received funding for school maintenance and replacement programs to maintain current facilities; about $7.5 million is allocated for fiscal year 2022.

The $101 million in capital spending moved several projects forward that had been discussed for years, such as the expansion of Woodbrook Elementary. However, division officials say that was a “targeted investment” to address critical needs regarding capacity issues and aging facilities.

“Due to the often limited funding, while it’s been robust — I don’t want to come across ungrateful — but it hasn’t met all needs and so you end up addressing those most critical needs,” Schmitt said. “Often it’s around growth and it’s been a priority of getting students out of learning cottages. By doing that, where the biggest capital spending has gone is expansion projects.”

With the help of the 2016 bond referendum, the division has expanded Woodbrook, Scottsville and Red Hill elementaries; modernized other learning spaces throughout the division, including science labs at the middle and high schools; built three new science labs at Western Albemarle High School; and changed front entrances to improve security.

“So when I look back on it, we’ve had some good, very exciting projects and exciting projects throughout the division,” Schmitt said of the referendum projects.

Of those projects and others undertaken since FY 2016, Woodbrook was the most expensive, at $15.6 million, aside from the $37.6 million spent on the maintenance and replacement program. The learning modernization project cost $11.4 million.

Schmitt said the bond referendum, which passed with 73% of the vote in November 2016, was a “paradigm shift” for the division and helped to accelerate the timeline on several projects. Prior to that, the last referendum vote in the county was in 1974, when voters approved a move to finance construction of Western Albemarle High School.

Schmitt said the county’s growth and space in schools are driving factors in determining which capital projects to pursue. The division’s enrollment has increased by about 1,000 students since the 2013-14 school year. Enrollment is expected to bounce back next school year after a pandemic drop.

Although the division has worked to address current capacity issues through the Crozet expansion, as well as projects at Scottsville and Red Hill elementaries, Schmitt said the division will always have capacity needs.

“We are not in Northern Virginia where they’re building new schools every year,” she said. “I think it’s a slower growth, which is often I think a little bit harder, because you feel that pain a little slower each year, and it’s not this dramatic influx of kids.”

The division has not built a new school since Baker-Butler Elementary in 2002, opting instead to expand existing schools. However, Schmitt said the division is reaching a saturation point where that’s not a feasible option either because of the school footprint or current student enrollment.

“We’re getting some pretty large schools, so what that means is, to meet future demand, we’re going to start talking new schools,” she said. “… We’ve reached that saturation point of being able to just keep expanding that we’re going to have to start talking new schools. Unfortunately, that comes with price tags.”

This summer, the division’s Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee, made up of School Board-appointed community members, will release its latest report detailing and prioritizing school facility needs. Schmitt expects new schools to be part of that report. In 2019, the committee recommended $180 million in school construction and maintenance projects.

The committee’s recommendations inform the planning process for the CIP request and serve as a strategic plan for the division in tackling capital needs. Several of the projects under way, such as Crozet, have been included in the committee’s recommendations for years and steadily moved up the priority list.

“When I kick off the Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee, I say this is one of the most impactful committees we have because you will see your work come to fruition quite literally,” Schmitt said.

In addition to addressing capacity issues, the division also has worked to update and maintain aging facilities, Schmitt said.

“When I look back, I think we’ve done a lot of great renovation work that has really brought many outdated spaces to current standards and more equity across the division as far as the student experience,” she said. “Going forward, I think those needs are still there.”

Historically, schools are not renovated unless there is a corresponding addition. That means schools with stable or decreasing student populations haven’t received the same capital investment as those in the county’s growth areas.

Of the county’s 24 school buildings, eight are in the rural area, with all but one of them being elementary schools.

“I look at a school like Murray Elementary or Broadus Wood that have more stable populations, they’re not in a growth area of the county and not going to receive a major expansion anytime soon unless something around development and zoning changes,” Schmitt said. “They do still have a renovation need. I mean those are 1960s buildings, I believe.”

As part of the referendum projects, every school received some benefit.

Currently and for FY 2022, construction funding for a new high school center off Mill Creek Drive is on hold, though several other projects are moving forward.

At Crozet Elementary, the division wants to add 17 classrooms, three smaller resource rooms, two offices and a faculty workroom to bring the school’s capacity to 680. The $21.4 million project also includes expanding the kitchen, cafeteria and media center and renovating the existing building.

Construction is scheduled to begin in May and be completed by the start of the 2022-23 school year.

For the coming fiscal year, $6.2 million for Mountain View will add classrooms and expand shared spaces to accommodate recent increase in student enrollment. Mountain View is the division’s second-largest elementary school.

“The important part is it’s an investment that supports the current population, and knowing that there may likely be additional growth in that area, there’s going to be more conversations of what else is needed,” Schmitt said.

Schmitt said the division can move quickly once projects are funded, which helps them work through renovations faster.

“When you’re on a school year cycle, you’ve got to do work in the summers,” she said. “We move quickly, so I think that’s something we should be proud of. When you look at actual expenditures, we’re not getting this money appropriated and sitting on it. Once we have the support of the Board of Supervisors, we are turning it around so students benefit from it as quickly as possible.”

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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