Council weighs in on budget, real estate tax rate

Charlottesville City Council held a community forum last night on the recommended budget for FY23. They had held a public hearing on Monday, but their own conversation at that time was somewhat limited. Staff asked Councilors to offer their perspective. (watch the budget forum)

Interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers has recommended a two cent increase on the real estate tax rate with the approximately $1.84 million in revenue going to a fund dedicated to paying for renovation of Buford Middle School. 

Staff also presented Council with three other scenarios for higher tax rates for how to cover the costs of the $75 million the School Board wants for the project. 

“It seems our decision points are raising taxes by eight to ten cents, real estate taxes,” said City Councilor Michael Payne. “Going quickly in with $75 million for the reconfiguration plan. And I think if we do that we need to acknowledge that the trade-offs that all of those things not in our budget that are not going to get funded unless we have an extremely large unexpected surplus or we raise taxes above even ten cents.”

Some of the things not in the budget include a contribution to Piedmont Housing Alliance for their project to build 50 units on the grounds of the Park Street Christian Church. Another is funding for the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center to cover their rent. Another is an additional $3 million for Charlottesville Area Transit to increase the system to 30-minute headways. 

City Councilor Brian Pinkston said he was not sure he could support a steep increase in the real estate tax rate because he thought it may push more people to leave the city. 

“I get these phone calls from folks whose housing has appreciated by ten, eleven, twelve, fifteen percent, their housing assessments,” Pinkston said. “And it is hard to put on top of that a real estate tax on top of that.” 

However, Pinkston said he could support a two cent increase in FY23 while an attempt is made to reduce the cost of the Buford renovation. 

Pinkston said all increases in the real estate tax should go to debt service for school reconfiguration. 

Krisy Hammill, senior budget analyst for the city of Charlottesville, offered this clarification. 

“There’s $2.5 million in the CIP in FY23 that is my understanding would complete the design and require no tax increase,” Hammill said. 

Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade served sixteen years on the School Board, where reconfiguration has been sought for many years. The School Board voted in October 2010 on a plan to build a single middle school to serve 6th through 8th grades, with fifth graders returning to elementary schools. The project has not yet advanced as a capital project. 

“Each time we have been putting it off so I will definitely be in the camp that we need to start on this now because one of the big issues is the inflation costs,” Wade said. “So I think that we were looking at some of the options and alternatives that we looked at on Monday, we’re in a rock’s throw of working this out and I think that we will as a community and a Council.”

Wade said Council will have to make some tough decisions. 

‘Many of the emails we receive say they want us to do it all, but we can’t!” Wade said. “We’re going to have to make some difficult decisions and that’s why they place us here.” 

Councilor Sena Magill said design of Buford would still continue during the next year and that the draft budget doesn’t show floating the bonds for Buford until Fiscal Year 2024. But she understood why some might be skeptical of the fate of dedicated funds in the Capital Improvement Program. 

“As we found with West Main Street, even if it’s in the CIP doesn’t mean it’s going to stay,”  Magill said. “West Main had been allocated out and we as a new Council took it out.” 

In all, previous Councils accumulated $18 million in capital funds for West Main that only existed on paper. The bonds are authorized but not yet sold, and the last Council agreed to transfer them to the Buford project. 

Magill said she would support a higher tax rate than two cents as presented to Council on Monday. 

Councilor Brian Pinkston said he wanted to consider a drop in the personal property tax to reduce the burden to those who will be hit with higher than expected bills.

“My original inclination with that is that this is a windfall for us but [Commissioner of Revenue Todd] Divers has made some good points is that it will be an affordability issue for many people,” Pinkston said. 

Divers has suggested that continuing to charge $4.20 per $100 of assessed value would yield an additional $2 million and that a rate of $3.22 per $100 would be an equalized rate that would bring in the current year’s revenue. Pinkston suggested somewhere in the $3.75 range. That would yield approximately $1 million.

Councilor Snook said that $1 million coupled with $1.2 million from a half-percentage increase in the meals tax would yield additional revenue that could be used to pay for other initiatives.

“I think at some point we need to agree on what purposes we’d like to try to fund and then we can try to fit the taxes to meet those expenditures,” Snook said. 

Wade said he wanted the city to do what it can to keep the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in place.

“Whether it’s a combination of working with them for fundraising and the city assisting because I know when I was on the School Board the programs that they provided was invaluable and what they can do no one else can do, the way they bring the community together to have those courageous conversations,” Wade said. “They’re there to do that.” 

Councilors appeared to be willing to support a request to fully fund the Public Housing Association of Residents’ request of $41,000. The draft budget only recommended $21,035. 

Rogers said the conversation at the community budget forum was useful. 

“We will work the budget staff and the departments heads in the city to address what you have identified as priorities of sincere interest,” Rogers said.  

However, Rogers reminded the Council to be mindful of what the city could afford. He suggested they review the three scenarios presented by Hammill on Monday. 

“And there are some hard choices,” Rogers said. “Whether to raise taxes or not, and if so, do it all at once, or have a phased approach?” 

The next step in the budget process is a work session on the Capital Improvement Program on March 31 beginning at 6 p.m. (meeting info)

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