Hello! And welcome to the first election podcast of the 2021 season. I’m Sean Tubbs, the host and producer of the Charlottesville Community Engagement newsletter, and this is an edited audio version of the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association Candidates Forum held on March 10, 2021. The full recording will be made available by the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood association, and you may have heard or read parts of it in the March 11, 2021 edition of the newsletter.
This is an attempt to get as much of the candidates’ words out there as possible. Edits are made for audio cohesion to make it a better listening experience, and to provide a little context from time to time.
“Welcome everyone, thank you for joining us, we really appreciate the four candidates, the filed candidates for the Democratic nomination for City Council joining us tonight for our neighborhood meeting,” said Jason Halbert, the president of the Fry’s Spring Neighborhood Association. The group has a tradition of inviting candidates to their meeting and this is the first chance anyone in the community had to hear all four explain a little bit about who they are and what their vision is for Charlottesville.
Even though this forum was held on Zoom, the format was similar to other forums. If you’ve never heard one before, they usually begin with opening statements.
“We’ll just do some three-minute intros beginning with Carl followed by Yas, then Juan and Brian,” Halbert said. “I rolled a die to determine the order and we’d just love to hear what neighborhood you’re in and what your top priority is to be on Council. You’ll have three minutes each.”
For the full event, you will have to listen to the audio. On to the next newsletter!
Here, though, are the first five questions.
Question 1: What practical steps do you think you can take if you’re on Council to bring more transparency to the capital planning process so that neighborhoods and neighborhood leaders understand and can reflect back to their neighbors where these projects lie as a priority for the city?
Question 2: How do we balance the need for affordable housing… with the need to have infrastructure?
Question 3: “If you are on Council, how would you work with people with whom you disagree?”
In years past, these meetings were held in the basement of the Cherry Avenue Christian Church. But in the almost-spring of 2021, this forum was held online which meant interaction between candidates and participants in the virtual channel.
Question 4: “How do you feel about raising the property tax rate?”
Question 5: “What are your thoughts on the ward system for Council relations? How can neighborhood associations make sure they are heard?”
The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors have begun their detailed review of the recommended $466 million budget for fiscal year 2022. The season has been slightly extended this year with adoption scheduled for May 5 after a series of work sessions. On Wednesday, the Board began with a look at the operating budget and began recommending potential things to add or to cut. Andy Bowman is the chief of budget.
“Fiscal year 22 is really going to be a transitional budget,” Bowman said. “Our economy is stabilizing but it has not stabilized. Our community is adapting as our circumstances change and people are impacted by the pandemic in very different ways.”
On Monday, they’ll talk about the school budget and next Thursday they’ll talk about public safety. At the Thursday meeting, they will also set a maximum tax rate for advertisement if they decide to increase from the current $0.854 per $100 of assessed value. County Executive Jeff Richardson’s recommended budget proposes no increase.
But on Wednesday, Bowman told the supervisors that the transitional budget is intended to prepare for a post-pandemic world.
“So even this is a transitionary budget, we had to reflect in making recommendations on what are those things we can do to build a bridge now to make sure that we are an even more resilient organization and community when we reach the other side of our future?”
This year’s budget is 17 percent higher than the current fiscal year, and Bowman said a lot of that is due to a larger capital improvement plan.
“The board may recall at the state of the Fiscal Year 21 budget, many capital projects have been put on hold and some of those have been restarted and that certainly plays into that as well,” Bowman said.
Since Richardson unveiled his budget in late February, the General Assembly adopted a state budget. Bowman said staff are continuing to review how that might affect Albemarle’s budget, so there may still be adjustments based on new revenues. They’re also reviewing the American Rescue Plan to find out that affect the budget.
“In my mind, I think of this as almost another round of the CARES coronavirus relief funds that were received in the last calendar year,” Bowman said.
The recommended budget does not include any of those federal funds, and budget staff are checking to see what the rules for their usage will be. Virginia is expected to receive $6.8 billion for state and local aid from the ARP, according to the Associated Press.
The county is putting $3 million in one-time funds toward expanding broadband in Albemarle and by creating an Office of Broadband Access. Supervisors directed staff to go in that direction in a joint meeting with the Albemarle Broadband Authority on February 17. Trevor Henry is the assistant county executive.
“We all experienced the tsunami of internet need that occurred over the past year and really we have all been in that mode since a year ago,” Henry said.
Henry said that even households that thought they had good access to broadband taxed their connections when almost every group event went online.
“And so the work that has come since a year ago has only intensified the critical needs and we have a lot of opportunities in front of us now to do some meaningful work,” Henry said. “We have programs at the federal, state and local level.”
Some of the work will be to pay for the “last mile” where clusters of structures are near a fiber line but their owners may not be able to afford to make the connection. Details of the program will come back to the board later this spring. But to make it work, staff will also need to be hired.
“The addition of an operations person, an administrator, will help us set up purchase orders, taking care of all of the billing, taking citizen requests, responding, tracking that data,” Henry said. “Those kinds of metrics, making sure that the action items on all of the various meetings related to broadband get tracked and captured and we’re working to executive them.”
Albemarle will also work on an effort to help people pay for the service once.
Supervisors were all supportive of the recommendations to move forward.
Both Louisa and Nelson have announced plans to move toward universal broadband through public-private partnerships with electric cooperatives. Earlier this month, the Louisa Board of Supervisors announced a $15 million investment. There’s a meeting today facilitated by the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission to see how the model being used in Louisa and Nelson can be expanded to cover what’s known as the “middle mile.” Legislation to allow Dominion and Appalachian Power to expand their broadband efforts passed the General Assembly this year and awaits action by Governor Ralph Northam. (HB1923)
The work session also covered public safety. Supervisor Diantha McKeel observed that new legislation requires localities to change the way service calls related to mental health crises are handled.
“I know there’s some discussion about creating a team between so the police don’t have to respond by themselves to many of our mental health calls,” McKeel said. “There’s nothing in the budget Andy right now around that initiative.”
Bowman confirmed that and suggested Police Chief Ron Lantz will be giving an update on that in the near future.
Another new expense in the budget is the hiring of five people to staff the North Garden Volunteer Fire Company during the day with fire and rescue service by the fall of 2022.
“Currently there are no county staff down there, they are entirely volunteer,” Bowman said. “We received a letter from them in the fall requesting supplemental staffing during the weekday daytime.
The budget also includes purchase of an ambulance for the North Garden department. Bowman said that over the past four budgets, the county has added 32 full-time equivalents to fire and rescue. Some of those positions have been supported by grants from the federal government and to increase coverage to meet the needs of a growing population.
A more in-depth discussion of public safety budgetary issues will be held at the March 18 work session. On March 22, they will talk in detail about transit. Charlottesville Area Transit had requested $1.47 million but the draft budget only recommends a million. Albemarle would contribute $6,137 a year for the new Afton Express and $2.18 million for Jaunt.
CAT provided an update on proposed route changes at the February 24 Regional Transit Partnership.
“In fiscal year 21, there are two studies that are taking through the Regional Transit Partnership,” Bowman said. “One of those is a longer-term regional transit vision plan and the other one is funded in 21 looking at some Albemarle specific transit services and we’ll be looking to what comes from that report for FY23 and beyond.”
Supervisors wanted more information on several things, including current response times for North Garden, the status of daytime staffing of the Earlysville Volunteer Fire Company, the and cost of operating the future Biscuit Run county park.