Category Archives: Audio

Four Democrats introduce themselves to Fry’s Spring neighborhood at Council candidates forum

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.  

Edited audio from the forum.

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. 

The candidates are:

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?”

A longer look and listen: Charlottesville City Council hires regional administrator as next city manager

It’s not every day that City Council hires a city manager, but the occasion has become slightly less rare in recent years. As 2021 began, Council spent more than a dozen hours in closed session to discuss personnel issues related to the hiring of a City Manager. Charlottesville has had the Council-Manager form of government in place for nearly a hundred years but in recent years the form has been tested.

Maurice Jones, a former city communications director, held the position for eight years until Council opted not to extend his contract in 2018. Deputy City Manager Mike Murphy stepped into the role on an interim basis before Dr. Tarron Richardson was hired in May 2019. Three new Councilors took office in 2020, and Richardson resigned in September. City Attorney John Blair stepped into the role on an interim basis and a search firm had begun work, but news came out earlier this year they had with drawn from the process.

With that as prologue, Council held a press conference on January 14, 2021 to make an announcement.

“Thank you all for joining us today,” said Charlottesville Mayor Nikuyah Walker. “We are selecting and we are appointing a new city manager. Mr. Chip Boyles.”

Boyles has been the executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District for nearly seven years. If you’ve not heard of it, the TJPDC provides government services to the city as well as five surrounding counties. We’ll hear more about Boyles in a moment.

For now, Mayor Walker said the public deserved to know why this decision was made.

“We also are aware that the public will have a lot of questions about this process, why it was handled in this manner, and what our future process will look like,” Walker said.

For about an hour, Council took questions from the press about the hire, and what happens next. But first, Councilor Michael Payne read from a prepared statement representing the entire Council. Here’s the whole thing.

Council statement

“Over the past week, City Council has held several closed sessions to discuss the state of the organization. We know that this has caused much speculation as to the reasons for these meetings and what is to come from them. Today we are announcing that Mr. John Blair will be leaving the City of Charlottesville effective March 5, 2021 having accepted a position as City Attorney in the City of Staunton. Mr. Blair’s final day as Acting City Manager will be February 12, 2021. Mr. Blair has served the city faithfully and diligently and we offer nothing but our sincerest thanks for his service in these challenging times for our city. We wish him the best in his career.

“With this, we would like to announce that Mr. Chip Boyles has agreed to join the organization as City Manager. After carefully balancing the needs of the city at this current time, we are offering Mr. Boyles the City Manager position with the goal of stabilizing the organization and rebuilding the leadership team within City Hall. Mr. Boyles, age 58, has served as Assistant City Manager and City Manager in the cities of Taneytown, Maryland; Hardeeville, South Carolina; and Clemson, South Carolina. Prior to most recently serving seven years as the Executive Director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission here in Charlottesville, Mr. Boyles was the Urban Development Director in the Mayor’s Office of the City/Parish of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

“Over the past several months, city government has experienced significant turnover, uncertainty, and instability. This has occurred at a time when our community is facing historic challenges created by a global pandemic, economic instability, and the need to address long-standing inequities within our community.

“City Council must directly confront the causes of the instability within city government. We did not end up in this situation overnight. We will not get out of it overnight. The central task facing City Council over the next year is to work with the City Manager’s Office to rebuild stability and assemble a leadership team that applies professional, stable governance to the many issues facing our community. That is the foundation of serving our community and implementing sound public policy, and that foundation is cracked.

“Today is only the beginning of this work. Over the coming months, Council must take additional actions to change the dynamics within City Hall and create an environment of mission-driven teamwork, collaboration, and trust.

“Council must acknowledge its central role in creating the instability within city government. We will need to establish, and adhere to, clear procedures, expectations, and norms that govern how Council conducts business among itself, runs meetings, communicates with the City Manager’s Office and city staff, and prioritizes public policy. City government is filled with dedicated public servants who work daily to serve our community; it is City Council’s responsibility to show leadership and make the changes necessary to create an environment where city staff are empowered to lead the organization and execute Council’s policy priorities. Our community needs leadership, and Council must rise to the occasion.

“We would like to express our deep gratitude to all those who have stepped forward to offer their support, experience, and knowledge to our city during this moment of crisis. It highlights our greatest asset — our city’s dedicated staff, public servants, and community members. It will require our collective wisdom and efforts to support our local government in the task of creating the just, resilient, and equitable community we can and will be.

Why Boyles? Why now?

So, who is Chip Boyles, and why him? After thanking John Blair for his service, Councilor Heather Hill read from her own statement.

“Mr. Boyles coming on board is a great gain for the organization and the community we collectively serve,” Hill said. “I want to thank him and his family for believing in us to make their own sacrifices as he joins in our quest to stabilize the organization to best serve the needs of all our citizens.”

Vice Mayor Sena Magill had her own welcome.

“I just want to say to welcome Chip,” Magill said. “Mr. Boyles, I look forward to working with you. I know you have Council’s 100 percent support behind you. We recognize we are in a very troubling environment and we are all behind working with you to strengthen our city.”

Councilor Lloyd Snook went next with these comments.

“It was important to me as we tried to move forward that we in fact move forward, that we not wallow in or be submerged by the past,” Snook said. “And that we look forward to new leadership, to new experience that Chip brings to us that can be of great assistance to us. I’ve said before that in many ways that the events of August 2017 are like a bell that keeps ringing. It hasn’t stopped ringing in Charlottesville. And what we’re seeing nationally just reinforces that.”

The offices of the Thomas Jefferson District Commission are on 4th Street in downtown Charlottesville, right at the site where Heather Heyer was killed and many more were injured by a Unite the Right rallyist.

Before Boyles spoke, Mayor Walker gave her thoughts.

“This was a challenging process over the past few days, weeks, contemplating whether this was something you would want to do at this time in your life and I appreciate the opportunity as Councilor Snook said to be able to hopefully, truly move forward and start stabilizing, balancing the organization but also acknowledge the reason why we’re doing that,” Walker said. “We need a stable organization so that we can meet the needs of our citizens. And as we keep bringing up, and Charlottesville has been brought up a lot since the terrorist attacks in D.C., I think we don’t even understand how we will never be able to shift from that until we actually put some things in place and heal.”

Boyles speaks

“I’m very appreciative that you and the City Council are entrusting me with this important responsibility and the importance of it at this particular time,” Boyles said. “When leadership and solidarity is so needed in Charlottesville but as Councilor Hill stated is needed all across our entire nation, I look forward to working with all of the city staff. I especially look forward to working with all of the Charlottesville community. It’s very, very important for me. I’m a people person and that’s where I look to spend a lot of time.”

“I know there are a number of citizens that were looking for a different direction as a city manager but I am trusting the City Council and your commitment to the city to leave all of Charlottesville to a much brighter future,” he continued. “I hope that over time I will build the support of all the community, for all of us to work together to a more unified community and Charlottesville.”

Boyles will start work on February 15. He will be replaced at TJPDC on an interim basis by Christina Jacobs, the assistant director. The TJPDC Board of Commissioners will meet on February 4.

Questions from the press

The first question from the press came from Riley Wyant of NBC29.

“This step of getting Chip in here as City Manager is obviously a big one for rebuilding but what else is top of mind for you guys?” Wyant asked. “I know there are a couple of other staffing issues. What needs to be done moving forward?”

City Councilor Michael Payne answered first.

“I think it’s really going to require working directly with the city manager’s office in order to build a leadership team, fill those vacancies and fill them to create a mission-driven team that as Mayor Walker said is focused on bringing stability but bringing stability with a goal in mind, and that goal of executing the policy priorities that we ran on and care about for the community,” Payne said. “Likewise, Council is going to need to work with the city manager’s office to create processes to have clear communication among ourselves, develop a strategic plan, to more clearly communicate our policy priorities with the city manager’s office and city staff and have those procedures and collaborative work really guide the process of filling vacancies and bringing stability.”

In a follow-up question, Wyant asked Councilors why they chose Boyles. Mayor Walker went first and cited her experience working with the new city manager in his capacity at TJPDC. The RTP she mentions is the Regional Transit Partnership, an initiative Boyles launched to bring area transit providers together.

“The two capacities that I have been able to witness how Chip operates have been with the PDC when I stepped in when former Councilor [Mike] Signer… had family constraints during that late evening meeting time and then with the RTP. My thoughts here was just that we had wanted someone who was neutral. Chip has been in the community for a number of years but he hasn’t been in the organization, and it will provide us an opportunity to just look at any issues that were brought up through a neutral lens, and I thought that was very important. But in witnessing him within those two capacities I was able to see someone who was an excellent communicator and who was very thorough in the information that the Board members would receive from them. And I’m hoping that those skills along with being able to being a new and fresh perspective to the organization will allow us to heal and actually be able to get some of the work that we have all promised to do done.”

Councilor Snook said he thought Boyles could remind city government of the roles everyone is supposed to be playing.

“I was impressed first of all that he would bring and does bring to the position prior experience as a city manager,” Snook said. “I think that is important for all of us that he understands the role, and that he helps us understand the role that we have in the city manager form of government.”

Snook also called Boyles a consensus-builder who knows the city of Charlottesville.

“He’s lived here for seven years,” Snook said. “He’s had a chance to observe our government in action. He knows exactly what he is getting into, let me put it that way. All of those things are important characteristics. “

The next question came from Nolan Stout of the Daily Progress.

“So Chip, my first question would be that you were for the last seven years at a regional capacity,” Stout said. “How are you going to change to this instead of looking of regionally because the city needs to focus internally, how are you going to change your mission with that?”

“Well, sure,” Boyles responded. “Prior to my seven years it’s been predominantly at local government levels. Most recently it was stated in the city of East Baton Rouge, which is quite a bit larger with a number of its own challenges that we had to focus with. I was also there during a transition period for their Council, which is actually a mayor and 12 council members.”

“The focus is to think back and to work back to my experience as a City Manager,” Boyles said. “But I don’t want to lose focus either on the regional important because as Charlottesville goes, so goes our region as well. So it will not be a complete change but more of a different and a way to focus towards the city of Charlottesville but keeping the region in mind as well.”

Stout then asked Council a question.

“How difficult was it going through these closed sessions and the process to get to this decision?” Stout asked.

Vice Mayor Magill answered first.

“I wouldn’t characterize them as difficult,” Magill said. “I would characterize them as thorough. We have been working to evaluate the needs of the city and bringing forward the best match for the city at this time and we wanted to make sure we spent time in evaluating and doing the most thorough job we could and I feel that we’ve done that and we’ve come out with a good result that I think we are all very happy with and truly believe this is a good way forward for our city and our future.”

Councilor Michael Payne said it has been an “extremely diffcult and challenging time for the city” at the same time there is a global pandemic. But he said the hiring of Boyles paves the way for opportunities.

“Along with all the challenges which are very real come enormous opportunities,” Payne said. “I think that we all feel confident going forward to be able to take a hold of those opportunities and get to a better place as a city and get to a better place to take action on policies to take care and support our community.”

I asked about Boyles to comment on the ongoing Cville Plans Together initiative, which aims to complete the Comprehensive Plan, create an affordable housing strategy, and update the zoning code. The Comprehensive Plan is a state-mandated document that is to be reviewed every five years. Council last adopted a plan in 2013, and the current review has been going on for four years. During that time, the city demoted its director of neighborhood development services, sometime during Dr. Richardson’s tenure. I asked Boyles for a general comment on these issues.

“Well, I’ll start with saying that I trust the staff at NDS,” Boyles said. “They’ve gotten us to this point with the Comprehensive Plan. I do believe coming in from the PDC, I fully understand not just the importance of the Comprehensive Plan but the timelineness of the Comp Plan. I do believe I will put a little bit more priority in not just that planning efforts but a number of the other planning efforts around affordable housing and others, knowing again how important than it is. And then of course weighing it with all of the other challenges and opportunities that we have but we’ll stay focused on things that are near and dear, like planning.”

Interim or permanent?

In my follow-up, I wanted to get to something I thought was important. Earlier, one of the Councilors said something about the search for city manager being opened again at some point in the future. I asked if we should consider Boyles an interim city manager. Councilor Hill responded.

“At this time, Council as reflected in the announcement, Mr. Boyles will be our City Manager and that’s what he should be referred to and we are certainly empowering him with all of the duties of a city manager,” Hill said.

Mayor Walker also wanted to respond about the process.

“This isn’t a process that any of us would have preferred,” Walker said. “I enjoy the open, the panel discussion, hearing feedback from citizens once they are introduced to the finalists and being able to weigh in. And it’s important for us to understand the culture that has been created by some of us internally, publicly, had us in closed session attempting to make this decision the best we knew how. So over the coming months, years, just as we reflect on how to make sure that we don’t end up in a position like this again, we’ll all have to look internally to see how we move forward together differently. I know we’re going to get this question a lot which is why I paused to comment because no one is going to be happy with the fact that five elected officials made a decision that is usually a very robust and thorough process by themselves. So we acknowledge that. We understand that those questions are going to come and we’re going to have to have a lot of conversations because of the way that this decision was made.”

On to the next question from Charlotte Woods of Charlottesville Tomorrow who asked Boyles what his priorities would be.

“The very first priorities which the Council have already stated and laid out are filling the positions that we need in the leadership capacity,” Boyles said. “There are quite a number of those.”

All of the people who were serving as Deputy City Managers under Dr. Richardson will have left by the time he takes office. This gives Boyles a blank slate to proceed.

“We’ve got a very big bus here,” Boyles said. “We have to get the right people on the bus and then the right people in the right seats. It’s crucial we do that. That will then set the stage for how we will be able to move the rest of the city forward.”

A future search?

Later on in the press conference, Brielle Entzminger of C-Ville Weekly returned to the question of an eventual reopening of the search.

“Is there a specific reason why you all are anticipating possibly starting the new city manager search in 2022?” Entzminger asked. “Is there a reason for that time length?”

“That is just to make sure that as the Mayor has stated that we do honor the process correctly,” said Vice Mayor Magill. “We also know at this time we don’t feel that… we can not have another interim manager. We have too many vacancies. We need to empower someone to be a true city manager. We are incredibly lucky that Mr. Boyles is here. And when we do a more formalized search, he will be welcome to apply for that should he so chooses.”

City Council hires the city manager, and that hiring is subject to a contract. Mayor Walker said Boyles understood what the terms would be before agreeing to take the job.

“When you all take a look at the contract, you will see that Mr. Boyles… is leaving a very secure position and he didn’t ask him for anything out of the ordinary,” Walker said. “He was extremely generous through the negotiation process and I hope you will be able to see that when you view the contract.”

Then we got to a second round of questions from reporters. Here’s Nolan Stout with the Daily Progress.

“How does having Chip selected knowing that there is going to possibly be a vacancy in 2022, how does that help recruitment when there’s a possibility that leadership might be different two years?” Stout asked.

“I don’t think that anyone looking at this and understanding that this is not the traditional process and we don’t want to set a precedent in Charlottesville that anyone that Mr. Boyles will be attempting to recruit who will take a look and research our community thoroughly will have a problem with us acknowledging to our citizens who elected us that we will go through this process,” Walker said.

City Councils role?

Stout asked a follow-up.

“The Council statement mentioned a lot about its role in leading to where the city is now,” Stout said. “I wanted to know what specifically you guys are planning to do to address your role and change things moving forward.”

“There are definitely some conversations that we need to have about what the next 11 months and sixteen days look like,” Walker said. “We just need time to do that. It is clear from your reporting during your tenure here and others that we have been a in a constant state of crisis. Relationships are not healthy and they are not very conducive to a very successful environment. I would hope that as we look and go through that process of introspection that I was talking about earlier, that not only we need to do but staff needs to do, and the community members need to do, that we come up with those answers and are honest in our conversations about what needs to be done and that we have a willingness to participate in it. As we’ve seen over the past few years, if this kind of discord occurs it doesn’t go away. It’s just the fanning of the flames. And so we all have to figure out how to do this differently and be open to it.”

“And I think it’s going to take Council taking collective responsibility,” Payne said. “Each of us individually and together as a team. We can’t put the blame on any one thing or any one individual. This is all of us. We’re all together in this team and we have to collectively take full ownership of it together. It’s going to be necessary for us to acknowledge that and have those honest conversations and I think we will work directly with Mr. Boyles to just lay out better communication, lay out clearer expectations.”

Payne said this might include procedures on how Councilors interact.

“Just sort of guardrails for how we do our business day to day and how we communicate with each other and how we communicate with the city manager’s office and staff,” Payne said.

Later in the press conference, Payne reminded the audience that all City Managers are subject to contract, and none are ever permanent.

“Every city manager enters into an environment of some uncertainty,” Payne said.

First steps?

In the short-term, Boyles will be responsible for putting together a budget for Fiscal Year 2022, which begins on July 1. Council faces continued revenue shortfalls due to the pandemic, and is also approaching its debt capacity. I asked Boyles if he’s being paying attention and if he’ll have a recommended budget in place by late February. He begins work on February 15.

“I’ve certainly been paying attention and I’m starting paying more attention,” Boyles said. “I cannot say that I have any particular direction at this time. This has been a very quick process. I start work on February 15. A great deal of the work will already be in place. In discussions with my existing Board and with the Mayor and City Council, the transition period unlike other places I think will go very, very positive and I will begin to work and be acclimated and begin to get my feet wet in the city business immediately. So hopefully that will help, but much of the budget preparation and delivery will be done.”

Charlottesville Planning Commission gets year-end update on consultant-led initiative

This January will mark four years since the Charlottesville Planning Commission began its review of the Comprehensive Plan. The process was delayed due to a renewed focus on affordable housing, an outcome that stems from increased public attention on inequity following the Unite the Right Rally in August 2017. 

The previous City Council put the review on hold in December 2018, and hired the firm Rhodeside & Harwell in the summer of 2019 to complete an update of the plan, draft an affordable housing plan, and then begin a rewrite of the city’s zoning ordinance.

This year was to have featured a series of public workshops for what has become known as Cville Plans Together, but the pandemic resulted in all of the meetings being held virtually. The consultants have expressed that the renewed outreach to the city’s youngest and lowest income populations has not produced the city’s hoped-for representation 

Last month, the public had a chance to review and comment on the draft affordable housing plan as well as a set of guiding principles for the Comprehensive Plan.  

“We’re revising the [housing] plan now and we’ll have a revision in the coming month or so,  and the plan right now is to have a conversation with Council in January, and then hopefully work toward some sort of endorsement by Council of the plan,” said Jennifer Koch, the project manager with Rhodeside & Harwell. 

Koch said an endorsement will allow the consultant team to move ahead on revising the Comprehensive Plan to put specific language that will lead the city to implement its principles. For instance, if there is to be more residential density, the plan needs to say so. That in turn will inform the new zoning code.

“Today’s zoning also has a number of flaws and barriers to development previously identified by City planning staff and elected and appointed officials,” reads the Cville Plans Together webpage on zoning. “This is an opportunity to cure these flaws and remove the barriers to the kind of development that will be described in the updated comprehensive plan.”

Some of those flaws are contained in a May 23, 2017 letter from the Charlottesville Area Development Roundtable, part of the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce. 

Others came from groups such as the Charlottesville Low-Income Housing Coalition, who have campaigned for changing “Historically Discriminatory Zoning Laws by Enacting Equitable Zoning Laws.” That phrase comes from the February 2020 paper The Impact of Racism on Affordable Housing in Charlottesville

At a high level, the draft affordable housing plan calls for a dedication of $10 million each year for ten years to be spent by the city to fund affordable units targeted at extremely low-income neighborhoods. A land use recommendation is very clear in what Council is expected to do. 

“Change zoning and development processes to increase the production of multifamily housing and expand feasible by-right development, and advocate for similar changes throughout the region, to begin to reverse entrenched patterns of racial segregation,” reads one strategy. 

The Planning Commission itself will not take a vote on this version of the draft affordable housing plan, but will take a formal vote on a recommendation when the entire process is complete.

“At this level the endorsement would not be an approval process necessarily but more of a nod that it’s moving in the right direction so that the next phase of the project can continue forward,” said Missy Creasy, the assistant director of the city’s neighborhood development services department. 

However, Chair Hosea Mitchell expressed concern that Council might see an idea that the Planning Commission did not support. 

“That could cause a lot of rework and slow things down,” Mitchell said. 

As it stands, Koch said a draft version of the Comprehensive Plan is expected to be ready for review in February. Review and revision has been underway since early 2017 and there were draft versions of some chapters before Council put the review on hold. 

“We are working from draft chapters,” Koch said. “We’re not starting from zero here so the thought is that we don’t want to go back. We want to move forward from where you all left off.”

“I think this is eminently reasonable because you’re building on all of the work that we’ve done for the last five years getting to this point,” Mitchell said. 

Updating the Future Land Use Map

Click for a higher resolution of this draft Future Land Use Map that was never adopted

One of the reasons the completion of the Comprehensive Plan stalled is due to something called the Future Land Use Map. Such a map can be controversial due to disagreements over the intensity of development that may be depicted for a specific site or group of sites, especially if the proposed uses require a different zoning to allow them. (2013 version) (February 2018 version

The future land use map is a guidance tool for the Council to use in evaluating new proposals for zoning amendments and other changes in the type and intensity of new development.

“The Comprehensive Plan Land Use chapter contains the Future Land Use Map which incorporates some of the land use goals that are in the plan but also is a long-term strategy for land use in the city,” Koch said. “It often is sort of the basis for some zoning adjustments but the future land use map is also often a longer term vision for land use that zoning may be.”

In December 2018, Council was presented with the work the Planning Commission had undertaken to date on the Comprehensive Plan. According to the minutes of the meeting, then-chair Lisa Green asked Council what they thought of the version of the map. 

“Ms. Galvin said the amount of purple (highest density) areas in the current draft was startling. She suggested within the lower density residential areas more intensity could be created there, in the yellow-orange zones, by mixing up the types of housing units.” 

At that meeting, Council discussed hiring an outside consultant to take over the work from the Planning Commission. They confirmed that decision in a vote in February 2019. (read my story from then)

As 2020 draws to a close, Rhodeside & Harwell are turning their attention to the future land use map. They are starting their work with a draft map from March 2018. 

“And we know there were several working versions of this map developed after this point but the reason we’re starting with this is because it was as we recall the last version that was shared at a public meeting,” Koch said. 

Commissioners Lyle Solla-Yates and Rory Stolzenberg objected to not starting with the map Council had seen in December 2018. However, Creasy said the work had to start from somewhere. Current Chair Mitchell agreed

“This is the last place where we did have true consensus,” Mitchell said. “We all knew this was the starting point and that’s what we’re trying to build on. Every time we try to go beyond this, we have five different opinions.”

Koch said they will present a new version of a future land use map soon based on the Commission’s feedback. 

University of Virginia

Commissioner Gary Heaton said the University of Virginia’s role needed to be taken into account.

“Where the city ends and the University of Virginia begins, our land use map should reflect how we envision the future of the city as it pertains to the effect of the University on the city,” Heaton said. He added that other university towns such as Blacksburg and Columbus appear to have had more success. 

“These are places that also have been heavily affected by the University,” Heaton said. “If the city could someone get out in front of there could be ways to address affordable housing.”

The city, the University of Virginia and Albemarle County signed an agreement in 1986 to work together on land use issues. Until last year, there was a public body called the Planning and Coordination Council that served as a clearing house to work together and share information. 

In the fall of 2019,  elected officials voted instead to create a private body called the Land Use, Environmental and Planning Committee (LUEPC) as “a vehicle to share and coordinate land use and development plans and projects.” 

There was to be an evaluation of this new arrangement, but as with the Cville Plans Together initiative and so many other matters, the pandemic changed things. 

“At the end of this first year, the entities were to evaluate the Committee’s structure to determine if it had achieved the stated objectives,” reads an update on the December 2, 2020 consent agenda of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors. “Given that the Committee’s work commenced amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Committee respectfully requests that the entities postpone this evaluation until the conclusion of 2021.” 

Meanwhile, UVA has made a commitment to housing. On March 10, the University of Virginia announced it would build up to 1,500 affordable units on land it or its real estate foundation owns. The topic came up at a meeting of the Regional Housing Partnership last week. Colette Sheehy is the Senior Vice President for Operations at UVA. 

“We have now restarted that initiative, more probably coming in January, but we are trying to get back on track,” Sheehy said. 

Bill Palmer with the University of Virginia Architect’s Office agreed that UVA’s actual reality should be depicted on the map. He is a non-voting member of the Planning Commission. 

“Before we really go too far forward with this map, maybe really look at these areas around UVA to make sure that they are depicted correctly now,” Palmer said. “I know that there was quite an upzoning a good while back of the neighborhoods around the UVA to absorb student development.”

Palmer referred to the 2003 rezoning when the University Medium Density and University High Density were created. He also reminded the commission of UVA’s recent redevelopment of Brandon Avenue into a much more dense precinct. 

The Ivy/Emmet corridor is also slated for redevelopment, and there is a master plan for the properties it has assembled over the years. On Friday, December 11, the Buildings and Grounds Committee of the Board of Visitors approved the schematic design for the 61,000 square foot School of Data Sciences. That project is being funded by a foundation associated with Jaffrey Woodriff, who is also the main force behind the development of the CODE building on the Charlottesville Downtown Mall. 

Additionally, three large structures have been built on West Main Street and marketed for students in the past several years. However, Council is still wrestling with how to implement a plan for pedestrian infrastructure that had been intended to support the additional foot traffic and to revitalize the corridor’s retail and service economy. 

Council wants more info before giving direction on capital spending

Charlottesville’s appointed officials sought fiscal clarity from Charlottesville’s elected officials during a budget work session on November 12 that sought to gauge Council’s willingness to seek additional revenues to pay for major projects. John Blair is the interim city manager. 

“As you all know there are a number of large scale capital projects that have been talked about in various iterations through the past few years but what I’ve asked our budget team is to provide you with some numbers that are going to demonstrate using your debt capacity for various projects,” Blair said.  

Listen to an audio version of this report.

Blair said that the city is close to its debt capacity and more projects will likely require tax increases, but he said that topic was not directly before them. Blair’s budget for FY2022 will not be unveiled until March. It will also be the first to be prepared under this Council. 

“Obviously I think a number of you have interest in various capital needs whether it be affordable housing, education, infrastructure,” Blair said. He also said this would send a message to would-be city managers about the kind of city this Council wants it to be. 

For now, the budget is in the very early stages of formation because exact revenues aren’t yet known.  Budget staff needed to know Council’s thoughts on whether to change a key policy to increase the amount of bonds that could be sold to pay for capital projects. Doing so will increase the amount the city needs to spend on debt service to pay back those who buy those bonds for a steady return. 

We have been in fiscal year 2021 since July 1, and a decision was made by Council earlier this year to continue with $25.8 million of projects in the capital budget, and they signaled support for a total five-year plan of $124.1 million. 

“We were going to fund $84 million of this five year plan with bonds, and if you recall, due to COVID, just about all of the cash that was originally intended to go to the CIP was held in a reserve with the general fund to offset any of the unknowns,” said Krissy Hammill, Senior Budget and Management Analyst for the city of Charlottesville. 

Practice has been to use a mixture of cash and bonds to pay for capital projects and since 2010, the average has been 37 percent in cash. For this year’s capital budget, 93 percent will be paid for through bonds. Currently the city has about $90 million in government debt, $80 million of which is for bonds that have been approved for projects but not yet issued.

“That means that we typically issue bonds on a cash-needed basis so we don’t issue the bonds until the project is either imminent or underway because we do have spending requirements that once we issue the bonds we typically need to spend that money within 24 months,” Hammill said.

Hammill said the city has been building up a fund balance to help reduce the amount of cash that needs to go to debt service each year. But at some point, the city will need additional cash from property taxes to make up the difference. Hammill showed a hypothetical situation where $32 million in new bonds are floated each year through FY2027. That would increase the debt service steadily over time, from $11 million in FY2022 to $19.2 million by FY2026. 

“You’ve basically built in the need for a penny of additional revenue, that’s equivalent to basically a penny a year,” Hammill said, adding that in further years, the need for additional revenues would continue to grow. 

To put it colloquially, Hammill effectively stated that the city can float an additional $52 million in bonds without maxing out the credit card. Potential projects include additional spending at the future parking garage, reconfiguration of city schools and continued investments in affordable housing. 

Parking structure 

After a long discussion about debt financing and how much additional capacity can be found, Council then began discussing potential projects. The first was whether a $10 million project to build a new municipal parking garage could be altered to provide more building height. 

In a ten-page white paper dated October 14, Economic Development Director Chris Engel lays out the current plans.

“The City has plans to construct a parking structure on a one-acre assemblage of property it owns at the intersection of Market Street and 7th Street,” Engel wrote. “A conceptual design study indicates that a four level structure of approximately 300 parking spaces and 12,000 square feet of street front commercial space is feasible on the site and such a structure is permissible by-right within the City’s current zoning ordinance.”

Engel also included a contingency of an estimated $5 million to build a stronger foundation and employ other measures to ensure the taller building would be structurally sound. 

At the November 12 work session, Engel said the project will be built using a design-build contract, which means one firm will be asked to do both tasks. A request for qualifications is expected to go out this month, followed by a request for proposals early next year.

“When we go through the process of seeking a design-build contractor, their proposals will have those types of details that we can compare one to another and that’s when the city chooses the best respondent and gets into a contract with them to actually build it,” Engel said. 

The city has never pursued a project through a design-build project before. Engel explained this project is not a public-private partnership in part because of a bad experience within the last decade when a project to develop a city-owned parking lot fell apart.

“[West 2nd] started as a design competition really and then lead to a development agreement,” Engel said. “The path that we are on now is not that. The path that we are on now is that this is a city-owned facility. We build it with our money and we own it and we control it. That’s in part to eliminate risk and that’s done in part to honor the agreement with [Albemarle] county and best control those parking spaces so that they have confidence. Entering into a third-party agreement complicates that a little further.” 

In the case of West 2nd, the city asked private developers to submit proposals to redevelop the City Market lot with a mixed-use building and space for the market. 

“We spent four years and we ultimately got to a point where the project did not proceed from there,” Engel said. 

Engel said the parking garage is expected to be operational in three years.

Councilor Heather Hill said she remembered when these questions were asked two years ago. 

“It just seemed like it wasn’t a feasible option to go that route and invite a partner given the significant cost between what we’re proposing here and how much additional it would cost to do more than what we’re proposing,” Hill said. 

Councilor Lloyd Snook asked how much delay there would be if Council decided to go on a different path. 

“If we said, okay, the courts aren’t actually going to be built until 2025 and we’ve got sort of a slow-down in parking needs at the moment because of COVID and working at home and all the rest of that stuff, and some of that is going to maybe happen for the next couple of years, maybe we don’t need desperately need to get things done by 2023, maybe we work something out with the county to say, okay 2024 is fine. These are all just hypothetical here.”

Engel said it would be hard to predict the delay but again repeated that negotiations would likely take six months to a year. 

Councilor Michael Payne asked if the city could just provide the required spaces for the county at the Market Street parking garage. 

“When we’re looking at our CIP budget we’re going to have to, there’s no way around trying to revisit past decisions and figure out what to prioritize and re-adjust,” Payne said. 

Another question before Council was whether the city should invest in improvements to make the Dogwood Vietnam Memorial in McIntire Park more accessible. Staff had recommended working on a way to build a parking lot closer to the memorial to replace the one removed for the skate park. Council did not reach consensus on how to proceed. 

Council needs more info to provide direction

Council was asked to come up with priorities to help the budget staff develop a preliminary CIP budget.

“Without cutting something out, we are anticipating the need for tax increases,” Hammill said. “Not this year necessarily, but soon in the future.”    

The city’s property tax rate has been $0.95 per $100 of assessed value since 2008. 

One of the big questions is this Council’s willingness to proceed with school reconfiguration. 

Hammill said $3 million was allocated to the school reconfiguration in FY20 to help with design. According to that budget, the purpose is for “architecture and engineering services and [to] determine preliminary designs and costs.” 

Councilor Lloyd Snook said he was not sure how much direction he could give at this time.

“As a general proposition it’s hard for me to think of anything that’s more important that we do than educate our kids and we ought to be allocating significant resources to educating our kids but whether significant resources means $60 million over six years or $3 million next year and we’ll see or anywhere in between, I don’t know how to answer that question,” Snook said. 

The West Main Streetscape has $18.5 million in approved funding, but the bonds have not yet been issued. Hammill said staff would be asking for another $8 million to complete the financing for the West Main project.  

A value engineering study to bring the cost of the West Main Streetscape down is not ready. That project currently has a total cost estimate of $49 million though some of the four phases have been funded by the Virginia Department of Transportation. Council had a work session on this topic on September 30 and are expecting a report from RK&K about how adjustments can be made to save money. 

Mayor Nikuyah Walker said she couldn’t make a decision until that information was ready. 

As the budget work session came to a close, Councilors said they needed more time before making decisions on specific items. But let’s hear from three of them. 

“There is no way that we’re getting out of this without cutting things that we all care about tremendously,” said Vice Mayor Sena Magill. 

“This has to be put out to the community and they’re going to have lead that conversation with us given the scale of this investment and what it could mean to taxpayers,” said Councilor Heather Hill. 

“I echo Councilor Magill’s point that I think that as well as in the context of COVID which is creating greater uncertainty for us in terms of our revenues could be worse than what we’re thinking, the composition of the Senate at the federal level should make us contemplate the reality that there will not be additional support coming from the federal government to bolster state and local governments,” Payne said. “Even if we assume tax increases, if we’re just taking an honest look at it, I think our only path forward is to look at some of our previously committed expenditures and evaluate what the trade-offs are and make cuts.” 

Council will have another work session on the budget this Friday beginning at 1 p.m. Before  that, they will have provided direction on whether to proceed with additional local spending for traffic calming efforts on 5th Street at their meeting on November 16. 

Waiting for the Next Administration – Charlottesville Quarantine Report

This is a rough transcript for this program, and as such is not formatted like a news story. Yet I know that many prefer to read these, so I took the time to write it all out. But now I need to move on tomorrow’s episode of the Charlottesville Community Engagement newsletter.

The national election has brought the potential for a national strategy to fight COVID-19 with the announcement by President-elect Joe Biden.  

“This group will advise on detailed plans, build on a bedrock of science, and will keep compassion, empathy and care for every American.”

But there are more than two months into inauguration and there is a looming crisis according to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. 

(Northam clip)

I’m Sean Tubbs, and this is the 49th episode of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report. On today’s show, excerpts from Governor Northam’s November 10 press conference, as well as parts of President-elect Biden’s task force announcement. 

The 49th episode of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report

But first, let’s get a quick news update on the numbers as of November 11, 2020.

There are another 1,594 new cases of COVID-19 reported by the Virginia Department of Health this morning. That brings the seven-day average for new daily cases to 1,524. The seven-day average for positive test results remains at 6.2 percent statewide today.

There are another 18 cases in the Blue Ridge Health District reported today, bringing the seven-day average to 26. The percent positivity for the district for PCR tests has increased to 2 percent, up from 1.8 percent yesterday. 

Governor Ralph Northam is asking Virginians to continue to follow health guidelines to stop the spread of COVID-19 but said yesterday he is not likely to impose restrictions.

“We’re seeing a rise in cases and in percent positivity which is now 6.2 percent and we’re also seeing a ride in our hospitalizations,” Northam said. “This is very concerning, especially because it is getting colder. The holidays are approaching and the temptation to gather with other people is high.” 

Northam said the VDH continues to be concerned about Southwest Virginia where a high number of cases were reported late last week. In Wise County, the seven-day average for new daily cases per 100,000 population is 65.8. That figure is 52 for Washington County, 57.7 for Scott County, and 59.3 for Russell County. For comparison, those numbers are 7.8 for Albemarle and 19 for Charlottesville. 

“Our team has been in communication with health directors in Southwest Virginia about the spread in that region,” Northam said. “We’re focusing on a communications campaign to emphasize the importance of doing the things that we know work. Avoiding indoor gatherings. Washing our hands. And wearing face coverings.” 

Northam reminded the public that Virginia has a mask mandate in place for indoor spaces. 

“While we are concerned about southwest Virginia I want to remind Virginians that we are seeing rising cases in other regions and around our nation as well,” Northam said. “The central region of Virginia for example is seeing a steady increase in case counts.” 

Thanksgiving is 15 days away, and Northam urged people to remember that the virus spreads more easily indoors. 

“This virus spreads through the air. And it spreads more easily indoors. You should take precautions around anyone who does not live in your own house. Yes, even if they are your family. There is no genetic immunity that prevents you from giving this virus to your mother, to your grandfather or any other loved ones in the house with you. 

I’m not saying don’t celebrate Thanksgiving but if you’re planning to gather with people outside of your household, think about ways to do it more safely,” Northam said. “Consider how the space is ventilated. Or think about ways to have gatherings outdoors. Wash your hands. Think about smaller gatherings and wear a mask.” 

On November 10, Northam announced that Virginia has entered into contracts with three labs to participate in a new COVID-19 testing network to be known as OneLab. This will increase testing capacity and turn-around time.  

“OneLab is our coordinated COVID-19 lab testing system. It allows us to increase our testing capacity specifically to support high-priority testing campaigns such as community testing in surge areas, outbreak investigations, and testing in congregate setting such as our nursing homes.”

Northam said this would add the ability to process about 7,000 more tests a day by the end of the year. He also said that the state’s purchase of antigen tests will soon yield new kits.

“Those are the quick response tests. We purchased 200,000 tests through the Rockefeller testing compact and those are arriving in Virginia and being distributed to our nursing homes and our long-term care facilities. In addition, we’re receiving rapid Binax Now from the federal government and have distributed more than 52,000 of those so far.”

One of the things we’ll be watching for in the coming weeks are plans to deliver vaccines to millions of Americans. That may not be for some time, but there is a possibility.

“Yesterday we all heard good news from Pfizer that their vaccine appears to be ninety percent effective. That is very, very encouraging. But we should all remember that this isn’t the magic bullet. Any approved vaccination will still take months to distribute. Virginia like other states have spent months already preparing plans for how to equitably distribute a vaccination. When a vaccine is ready, one that is safe, and effective, we will be ready too in Virginia.”

Dr. Norm Oliver is Virginia’s Health Commissioner.  He said the vaccine will be more effective if case loads can be kept lower. 

“In order to stop a pandemic we really have to do our best to increase the immunity that exists in the population and vaccines do that, they boost immunity although as the Governor said it’s going to take us months to vaccinate millions in the Commonwealth. It will take a while to develop that immunity and during that period of time, a lot of the things that we are doing now we will continue to have to do.”

Dr. Oliver said the VDH rolls out flu shots every year, and is ready to proceed with the COVID-19 vaccine when one is ready. He said the federal Centers for Disease Control has approved Virginia’s plan. 

“We have revised and tweaked those plans and we are ready to work with the CDC and the Department of Defense who are the two entities that will lead the vaccine allocation to receive those vaccines from them and ensure that those vaccines get into the arms of those of us here in the Commonwealth of Virgina.”    

As of this recording, the incumbent president has not conceded the election. Northam addressed the issue.

“We expect to have a new president in January,  President-elect Joe Biden, and I look forward to working with him and Vice President Kamala Harris. I am heartened that President-elect Biden’s first action has been to appoint a task force to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. Other governors and I have said for months that a stronger federal response would be helpful to us and I look forward to seeing that become a reality.”

We’re going to hear more about that task force in a moment. Let’s hear again from Northam about what’s coming up in the next couple of weeks. 

“Virginians, you have done an exceptional job over the past eight months of responding to this crisis, and think about that. Eight months. I know you’re tired. I’m tired. The new normal is still ahead of us. But I want to say that by and large people have listened to the public health advice and we can’t stop now. We put on our face coverings in public and we avoid large crowds. And we need to keep it up. It’s more important now than ever. We cannot get complacent or let down our guard for the holidays. I don’t want to see our case counts continue to rise but we want to lower than and we all most do our part.”       

Several reporters asked several times if there were plans at this point to return to the restrictions we were in for the first few months of the pandemic. Let’s hear this question from Kate Masters of the Virginia Mercury. 

“Not to beat a dead horse when it comes to guidance on restrictions with COVID, but when I look at the state metrics I see that we’re seeing daily new cases rise higher than they ever have in the pandemic. So I’m wondering what it would take, what metric you would look at, that would trigger a possible new restriction. You mentioned that you knew what was making COVID rise. Can you speak more specifically to why eight months in we’re continuing to see these spikes and lulls in Virginia?”

“Yeah, a couple of things and I appreciate your question. We are seeing higher numbers of new cases but I would reiterate that we’re doing more testing. Early on we were just doing a few tests every day, if that. Now we’re doing 20,000 plus tests and will continue to do more. So we’ll follow the number of new cases. But I think just as important is to follow the positivity rate. And also the instance rate. But speaking to the positivity rate, if you look at the graphs, we were over 20 percent at one time in Virginia and now we’re at 6.2, so yes there are more cases in Virginia because of more testing. The positivity rate, while it is still increasing, is still relatively low and so we monitor all of these things. And again, not to be a dead horse to use your words, we need to continue to be able to figure out why those numbers are rising and they’re rising right now because people are gathering and they are not wearing masks. If you look at where they are not wearing masks, you see those increasing numbers.”

Northam said he looked forward to federal leadership. And when we come back after a break, we’ll get a preview. But the final question came from a reporter who asked what would be different in the Biden administration. 

“It starts with messaging and encouraging people to follow these guidelines. It also includes options. Obviously we’re going to be communicating, governors, with the national leadership but it’s using things like the Defense Act where if we need more supplies, if we need more swabs, if we need more reagents, if we need more Binax testing, all of those things will be important. But I think a lot of it is the behaviour. This shouldn’t be a Republican versus a Democrat, or metropolitan versus rural. It’s really all of us. And in our case in Virginia, we’re all Virginians and let’s do the right thing not only for ourselves and our families but for those around us.      

(ad-lib) 

Governor Northam said his team has already been in touch with members of President-elect Biden’s task force. The President-elect made the announcement on November 9, the same day Pfizer made their announcement on the vaccine.

“It’s clear that this vaccine even if approved will not be very widely available for many months yet to come. The challenge before us right now is still immense and growing and even though we are not in office yet, I’m just laying out what we expect to do and hope can be done some it between now and the time we are sworn in.”

President-elect Biden said there is a need for bold action.

“We’re still facing a very dark winter and there are nearly ten million COVID cases in the United States. Last week we topped 120,000 new cases on multiple successive days. Infeciton rates are going up. Hospitalizations are going up. Deaths are going up. This crisis claimed nearly a thousand American lives a day and nearly 230,000 deaths so far. Projections still indicate we could lose 200,000 more Americans in the coming months before a vaccine can be made widely available. So we can’t forgo the important work that needs to be done between now and then to get our country through the worst wave yet in this pandemic.”

Biden then announced the creation of a COVID-19 Transition Advisory Board made up of public health experts toimplement  the successful campaign’s plans.  

“This group will advise on detailed plans, build on a bedrock of science, and will keep compassion, empathy and care for every American at its core, making rapid-testing much more widely available and building a core of contact-tracers who will track and curb this disease while we prioritize getting vaccines first to the most at risk populations, developing clear and detailed guidance for providing the necessary resources for small businesses, schools, child care centers, to reopen and operate safely and effectively during a pandemic, protecting both workers and the public. Scaling up productive life-saving treatments and therapeutics and when it’s ready, making sure an approved vaccine is distributed equitably, and efficiently and free for every American.”

Biden said there’s also a need to increase the amount of PPE again to make sure health care workers have what they need. 

“We’re going to give states, cities and tribes the tests and the supplies they need. We’re going to protect vulnerable populations who are most at risk from this virus. Older Americans, and those with pre-existing conditions. We’re going to address the health and economic disparities that mean this virus is hitting the Black, Latino, Asian-American, Pacific islanders, Native American communities, harder than white communities. Focusing on these communities is one of our priorities, not an afterthought.”

Earlier we heard Virginia Governor Northam say how he was looking forward to federal leadership. You can hear him say that a lot in the early episodes of this podcast, which was created to document the response in the greater Charlottesville area. Here’s the President-elect.

“There’s so much good work happening at state and local levels and levels across the country. Governors, Mayors. They are stepping up. The advisory board will listen and learn from their experience. Because we know that we won’t fully defeat COVID-19 until we defeat it everywhere, my advisory council will also include experts on global health security so that we can restore U.S. global leadership to fight this pandemic.”

Biden also said something the current president has not said in eight months of the pandemic. 

“We know the single most effective thing we can do to stop  the spread of COVID is to wear a mask.” 

As of this recording, President Trump has not conceded the election and is spreading misinformation. As of today, his campaign and adminstration have lost twelve court cases alleging voter fraud. Biden said the election is over, and it is time to get to work to fight COVID.

“It doesn’t matter who you voted for or where you stood before election day. It doesn’t matter your party, your point of view. We can save tens of thousands of lives if everyone would just wear a mask for the next few months. not Democrat or Republican lives but American lives. Maybe we’ll save the life of a person who stocks the shelves at your local grocery store. Maybe saves the life of a member of your place of worship. Maybe it saves the lives of one of your children’s teachers. Maybe it saves your life. So please, I implore you. Wear a mask. Do it for yourself. Do it for your neighbor. A mask is not a political statement but it is a good way to start pulling the country together.”

So, what happens next? What will the numbers be the best time I put another episode of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report? I don’t know, but every day I am paying attention through the Charlottesville Community Engagement report, and I hope you’ll subscribe. 

Winter is Coming – Charlottesville Quarantine Report, Episode 48

This is the 48th episode of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report. I created this show the first weekend of the pandemic as a way of covering how our community would be affected. At the time, I had a different job and felt this tremendous need to spend all of my time documenting what happened. Most of the shows were made in the first three months, and they now serve as a first rough draft of history of what happened.

But we’re still in this. I created the Charlottesville Community Engagement newscast and newsletter to do continuous coverage, but I will keep this show going. What follows is a transcript that is not edited. I will come back later and do so, but I want to get the words out, too.

Audio of the 48th episode of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report

(opening bell) 

As winter approaches, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam said it is crucial to avoid COVID fatigue and to remain vigilant.

“I know it’s been a long eight months. People and businesses are suffering and we’re heading into darker colder months. Folks, we need to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

I’m Sean Tubbs and this is the 48th installment of the Charlottesville Quarantine Report. Since beginning, I’ve been tracking the numbers and trying to make sense of changes. Since then, I’ve launched a daily newscast and newsletter and one of the stories has been the rise in cases in our area caused by the return of UVA students to the community. 

“This has been a very trying two months for everyone involved.”

That’s Dr. Denise Bonds, the director of what will soon be called the Blue Ridge Health District. We’ll hear from her later on in the program today.  We’ll conclude today with a brief story about the Jefferson Madison Regional Library’s decision to open up two more branches to in-person service. 

This show has had a small newscast at the beginning of each show, and this is no exception. Here’s where we were on October 29. 

(clips) 

On October 28, 2020, Northam began his comments by drawing attention to Virginia’s relative success in stopping community spread. On the day he spoke, the Commonwealth was averaging 1,140 new cases a day and the seven-day percentage of positive cases was at 5.1 percent. 

“As you have heard on the national news, virus cases numbers are going up across our country in nearly every state. We’re lucky here in Virginia that while our case counts are trending upwards in some regions, we’re not seeing large increases.”

Northam said Virginia is not an island. The Commonwealth has borders with five states plus the District of Columbia. He said that a sudden surge of cases in rural areas can put a lot of pressure on the health care system. 

“For example, Ballad Health, the hospital system in Southwest Virginia and eastern Tennessee is warning that it’s seeing an increase in COVID patients. Part of the issue there is that cases just over the border in Tennessee are spiking.”

A quick look at the cases numbers for health districts in far southwest Virginia show a surge underway. Wise County had a seven-day average of 36.1 new cases a day. That number was 37.8 in Washington County, 50.4 in Lee County, 61 in Scott County. 

Such spikes alarm health officials and the state of emergency we have been in since mid-March gives the Governor additional powers.

“During the summer, we saw a spike in cases in the east and we had to reinstate some restrictions in some localities to help get our numbers down. I’m pleased to say that worked. People took it seriously and now the eastern region case counts are not spiking.”

When Virginia began to reopen the economy in late May, northern Virginia held back for a few weeks to help improve their metrics. 

Northam said he has similar concerns now for far Southwest Virginia, but stopped short of imposing any restrictions. 

“The number of cases has been steadily increasing and the percent positivity is now just under eight percent for the region. In the southwest localities in the western end of the state it’s actually more like nine percent and has been increasing for 15 days. That’s twice the rate of the rest of the Commonwealth.”

Northam said because of contact tracing, health officials know what is causing the increase. 

“The spread in Southwest is driven in part by small family gatherings. I strongly urge everyone in the southwest to look at these numbers and step up your precautions. I ask you also to wear face protection. We know that that works.

Case numbers are rising in most states and around the world, other states and other countries, they are reimposing restrictions to get case numbers under better control. Nobody, nobody wants to have to do that but this virus remains a very real threat.”   

Northam said the Virginia Department of Health is working with local health officials in southwest virginia on ways to combat the spread without imposing restrictions. He said he is aware of COVID fatigue.

“I know that many people are tired of COVID restrictions. We are all tired of not having social get togethers, not going to see sports or shows, not having the regular interactions that we count on in our lives. Most people are doing the right thing and they are tired of seeing other folks disregard the rules and disregard the health and safety of other people.” 

With Halloween and other holidays approaching, Northam is telling people to avoid gatherings and crowds, and wear a mask when around other people.  

“As scientists learned a lot more about this virus over the past eight months, we all learn more about how easily it spreads through the air and we learn more about how these guidelines truly do reduce the spread if we all follow them.”

Turning to the financial crisis, Northam described how his administration has used some of the $3.1 billion in federal CARES Act funding Virginia has received.

“We’re using CARES Act dollars to help Virginians from our small businesses to free clinics to colleges and universities. $116 million to colleges and universities to help with their COVID response. Three million for free clinics. $66 million to support access to child care. $73 million for hazard pay for home health workers. $220 million for K-12 schools. $30 million to fast-track local broadband projects. And $22 million for Virginia’s COVID vaccination program planning.”   

And the crisis will continue. Northam concluded his remarks on October 28 by repeating the call for vigilance.

“I am so proud of how Virginians have stepped up during this pandemic. You can see the results in our numbers compared to other states. We just need to keep it up. This pandemic will end but it will not end in the next few weeks or months. This winter will be hard on a lot of people but you have done a good job of taking of yourselves but just as importantly taking care of our neighbors.”

Earlier, Northam said that contact tracing in southwest Virginia traces many cases back to small family gathering. But what does that mean? 

Let’s hear from Health Secretary Dan Carey. 

“Really the question is, and what our contract tracers have told us, is what do you mean by that and how small is? Really if you’re in a different household it may sound innocent that you’re going over to your brother’s house and they have three kids in the household and a spouse and there’s a total of only six or eight people, if they’re from different households with different connections they really should be socially distanced. Can you do it safely? Yes, you can keep your mask on. Yes, you can keep six feet. Yes, you can use hand sanitizer frequently. But coming together as an extended family as if you are in one household does present risk. Again, we want people to stay connected emotionally but we need to be clear about physical connection and we need to keep that distance if you are not in the same continuous household. That’s what we mean. We talk to our contact tracers and they tell us it was a group of four or five people that had dinner but they didn’t have the distance, they didn’t use masks. Obviously with eating you’ve got to take the mask off, and that means you may need to spread out and as it gets cooler, it will be harder to do that.”

This has been a summary of the press conference from October 28, 2020. In a moment, we’ll get a local update from the Blue Ridge Health District. 

*

Ad-lib about patreon numbers

The University of Virginia has been critiqued by many for opening up to in-person education this fall, and for planning to do so again in the spring. However it appears that cases there did not lead to large amounts of community spread. So far. 

The topic came up  during the briefing officials with the Blue Ridge Health District gave during the October 28, 2020 meeting of the Charlottesville City Council, Albemarle Board of Supervisors and top UVA officials. 

The main focus of that meeting was equity, and the three agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding to work on racial equity. 

Like Governor Northam earlier in the day, the health district’s Ryan McKay began by drawing attention to Virginia’s place as one of the state’s doing better to control the spread of COVID.

“A lot of the strategies that we are implementing here in Virginia seem to be working whereas if we compare strategy and policy across the country, we may find that those differences have created opportunities for greater spread and exposure. Among those strategies include things like social distancing, minimizing the size of social gathering, restricting visitation to different facilities and really adhering to those guidelines.” 

McKay cited Carnegie-Mellon data that shows states with mask-wear requirements have lower transmission rates. This will be important as the temperature drops.

“I think that’s a critical component as we head into late fall and winter, more people will be indoors,” McKay said. “The mask-wearing combined with other mitigation strategies is going to be really critical.”

The COVID-tracking dashboard on the UVA website has been listing active cases since August 17. On that day, Charlottesville listed 560 cases and Albemarle had 913. As of October 29, Charlottesville had overtaken Albemarle and had 1,607 cases. Albemarle had 1,593. 

“In September and October we saw some pretty big increases in the daily cases. We’ve dropped off a little bit in early October but now we’re picking up again. I think this is sort of the nature of how COVID is going to work. We’ll see increases, we’ll work quickly to mitigate and hopefully contain spread and then at some point we see another increase.” 

Cases roses as UVA began classes on September 8. But McKay said they were largely contained to the UVA community. 

“I will say that even though we say larger numbers of cases coming from the University setting, we did not see transmission from students or faculty into the community,” McKay said. 

However, the University has been conducting a lot of tests, and they all count toward the percent positivity rating. On September 6, the positive percentage for PCR tests was 7.5 percent. That number was at 2.7 percent on October 29.

“It’s important to understand that positivity rate may be being skewed by all of those tests that are being done,” McKay said. “We really need to look at what we’re seeing in terms of the raw data, the number of cases we’re seeing, and where that transmission is occurring.” 

McKay pointed to a key demographic when it comes to the impact of COVID-19. 

“We also see a pretty significant change when it comes to age,” McKay said. “Even though the majority of our cases are among those who are 10-19 and 20-29, those who are dying of COVID are of older populations, 50 and above.” 

Since the pandemic began, we’ve had Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day. McKay say holidays lead to increases as more people gather together. So will the colder months.

“COVID isn’t going away but the challenges will increase and I think it’s important for us to understand how we can  address those now by strengthening what we’ve done, but also how we can adapt,” McKay said. 

As we approach the winter, Dr. Denise Bonds suggests this is a time to talk about resilience. She said the community has demonstrated an ability to come together in difficult times. 

“This has been a very trying two months for everyone involved,” said Dr. Bonds. “Resilience here is our ability to cope with a variety of situations in a healthy and productive way. There’s many components to resilience. Strenghthening and promoting access to public health, health care and social services is certainly one. There’s been significant coordination between the city, the county, the health district and many of our nonprofits to provide wrap-around services in our area. Additionally, early on in the pandemic and continuing even now today there were community-led testing events that were supported by both of our hospitals as well as the health district.”

However, Dr. Bonds said more resources are needed to help ensure that people in this diverse community get the care and attention they need. 

“We certainly need more community health worker positions. We know that this can be a really successful way to gain the trust of our communities, to have individuals from that community work in partnership with us and community members.”

“Public health is one of those agencies that really needs substantial funding on a regular basis to do its job correctly. It makes it very challenging when public health or other social agencies are underfunded and then are asked to respond as we have here with COVID.”  

For now, Dr. Bonds said one of the biggest threats is that people will just get bored of all of this, and decide it’s no longer an issue. 

“We are seeing a huge amount of COVID fatigue both here internally in the health department but I think even among the citizens in our community. People are really tired. They’re tired of the stress and anxiety that COVID has built up about not really knowing what the next phase is going to bring, knowing if we’re going to bring a vaccine, when that’s going to be available, and we’re just now beginning to see the impacts of that. We know that its really impacted small businesses in our community. Many individuals have lost their jobs and been forced to seek unemployment. I think we’re just beginning to see the start of how this is going to be the long-term effect.”

In conclusion, the bottom line is that an increase in  cases may be inevitable due to changing seasons.

“Winter is coming. We’re going to see a lot of people moving to indoor activities which are higher risk. This is an aerosolized virus and we know that it’s shared when you breathe out and there’s less air turnover in an inside space. That I think is what is being reflected in the upper Midwest and the North Dakota area. They’re having the beginning of a very cold season so they’re going inside. We know that there are things that will help so for first of all, stay at home. Don’t go out if you don’t have to. And wearing masks does prevent it.”

Dr. Bonds said she personally has canceled her family Thanksgiving celebration, even though her family had been planning to do it outside.  

(musical sting)

Two more branches of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library are set to reopen by appointment only for extremely small numbers of people. David Plunket is the library system’s director. 

“Next Monday, Crozet and Scottsville will be joining Greene, Louisa and Nelson in moving to tier 3 appointment service,” said David Plunkett, the library system’s director. “Scottsville, unfortunately at the moment will only be one appointment at a time in order to keep the six-feet social distancing to make this work. The branch is so small it’s about the size of my office here.” 

The library closed early in the state of emergency but added curbside service at the Central and Northside branches in the summer. They opened branches in outlying counties in September and added Sunday hours to the Central branch earlier this month. Plunkett told the JMRL Board of Trustees at their meeting Monday that they will continue to add back services slowly, but would revert back if COVID conditions drastically worsen. If they remain steady, Plunkett plans to continue adding service.

“The goal is going to be to work with Charlottesville to open the city area branches,” Plunkett said. “I’m aiming for between Thanksgiving and Christmas for Gordon Avenue, Northside and Central. Albemarle has been reviewing the tier 3 plans to make sure they don’t have any objections to Crozet and Scottsville. I have heard none so far.” 

The initial number of patrons at a time will be five. 

Lisa Woolfork is one of three library trustees for Charlottesville. She posed an important question.

“This question isn’t really a critique at all of the plan,” Woolfork said. “I guess it’s a question about some of the speculation or what your thoughts might be on the speculation that we can expect numbers to rise nationally maybe as well as in the state as the weather gets colder and flu season converges on COVID. Do you have any thoughts about what a bump in infection rates might mean?”

“I believe that the model that we have in place at Greene, Louisa, and Nelson could continue throughout a bump because you’re talking about nobody being in close contact with any members of the public, you’re talking about everybody masked at all times and you’re talking about very limited people in a building, and you’re talking about a massive amount of cleaning by staff that’s happening on a daily basis.”

Plunkett said staff is reviewing closely the new definition that the Centers for Disease Control have for “close contact.” Previously it was listed as someone who had been within six feet of an infected person for a 15-minute period. Now close contact is defined as someone who has been within six feet of a positive case for a cumulative 15 minutes over a 24-hour period. He said that change would not affect the plan to open up the Scottsville and Crozet libraries to appointment-only service beginning on Monday. 

-ad lib out 

Council approves agreement for Friendship Court funding

Charlottesville City Council has endorsed an agreement that describes how a $5.5 million loan from the city to the Piedmont Housing Alliance will be used for the first phase of the redevelopment of Friendship Court.

“It has been over four years getting to this point and with a tremendous amount of work from in particular on the part of residents of Friendship Court and in particular the advisory committee at Friendship Court,” said Sunshine Mathon, the executive director of Piedmont Housing.

(read the staff report for this meeting)

Take a listen to the audio!

There are currently 150 rental units at Friendship Court, which was built in 1978 on land cleared through the urban renewal of Garrett Street.

“Resident-led redevelopment efforts propose a four-phase approach to replace all of the existing units and add additional residential units over the next eight to nine years,” said Brenda Kelley, the city’s director of redevelopment.

In 2019, Piedmont Housing was awarded funding from the Virginia Housing Development Authority through the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program to help finance the first phase of the project. The loan from the city helped make that application more attractive. The VDHA is now known as Virginia Housing.

“In total, the overall redevelopment proposes to construct approximately 450 new affordable units and more details to come before City Council in the future,” Kelley added. “This approach allows current residents to move directly into newly constructed units in each phase so that there is only one move associated with the relocation of residents.”

The first phase will be built where playgrounds and the community gardens have been. Mathon said the gardens will be relocated elsewhere within the development.

There will be 106 units, 46 of which will be new replacements for existing subsidized units at Friendship Court. The terms of the deal require the affordability restrictions to be maintained for 99 years.

“The item in front of you tonight provides for a master covenant that spells out the overall master plan requirements and also more specifically provides a separate phase one covenant that identifies the terms and the conditions for allocating the forgivable loan,” Kelley said.

In fiscal year 2019, Council allocated $5.545 million in capital funds to the project to pay for public streets, infrastructure, utilities, and affordable units for households with low to moderate incomes.

“The master affordable housing covenant will be recorded in the public records to provide assurances of affordability for the entire site,” Kelley said. “However, in the event of foreclosure, the affordability restrictions will terminate.”

Piedmont Housing will be required to submit an annual report. When the terms of the LIHTC funding are up, the city will have first right to lease or purchase units that are constructed. They’ll also have that right if the projects are ever foreclosed upon.

Piedmont Housing’s repayment will be deferred for 40 years as a forgivable loan, but if the nonprofit breaches the terms of the agreement, they will be responsible to pay for the full amount plus interest.

Part of the funding structure involves an agreement between Piedmont Housing and the Charlottesville Economic Development Authority.

“To help facilitate the financing of the project, Piedmont Housing has requested that the city consider an agreement that will share the incremental increase in real estate tax revenue generated by the investment,” reads the staff report for Council’s discussion. “With a commitment from the city to contribute the future revenue stream (as a grant), Piedmont Housing will borrow on this with a private lender to create the cash needed to begin the project.”

Mayor Nikuyah Walker was concerned about how this was set up given the number of other projects that will have the city paying to cover the costs if its own taxes, such as with Crescent Halls and South First Street.

“Essentially [Piedmont Housing] is taking out a $3 million loan for the gap funding for this and the request for the [Tax Increment Financing] would mean that the city would then forgive taxes up to the amount of the initial loan plus the interest that would accrue over the 30 year period,” Walker said. “Is there a better option than this arrangement where they’re taking out a loan that we will pay back anyway?”

Councilor Heather Hill said she thought this was a result of increased costs for the project.

“Things change,” Hill said. “There are a lot of moving parts, there are some inflationary costs in terms of the construction and that’s what I remember being like, you know, things were covered. Things are now not coming in like we thought. I remember sitting around a table with staff and another Councilor and that’s kind of where I remember that precipitating and then a lot of brainstorming going on to feel like what are some ways to get through this because we knew the city wasn’t going to be in a position to just outlay that capital outright.”

Walker said her caution is based on not knowing what future financial requests will be for the additional phases.

“I think these are two very important projects,” Walker said. “Of all the projects that I have voted on or not voted on that have been in front of us, and I’m just speaking for myself have looked at it, I think [CRHA redevelopment and Friendship Court] are going to take us to places and help us in ways that none of those other projects could do, and so it’s very important but I don’t think we’re looking at any of these projects in a fiscally sustainable way.”

Mathon said this approach was first discussed with city leadership in the spring of 2019. Phase 1 is being built atop a buried creek called Pollocks Branch.

“The site costs for doing work on Friendship Court continued to go in the wrong direction because of the soil conditions there being far worse than we originally anticipated,” Mathon said. “The proximity to the underground creek just caused site work to increase significantly and so we were trying to search for some additional source to cover that delta.”

Chris Engel, the economic development director, said these discussions occurred with Mike Murphy was interim city manager, before former city manager Tarron Richardson began work in May 2019.

This section of the discussion took place before Engel had a chance to give his staff report.

“What you’re going to hear about next in the performance agreement is a way to use the increment without the borrowing and it’s a mechanism that works and we’ve used it in a couple of cases,” Engel said. “This case is a little different in that it involves not a commercial interest, but commercial and residential, primarily residential but it can be helpful in funding something.”

Mathon said he believed this mechanism was in keeping with common practices. He gave a quick overview of how he believes capital budgeting works.

“The city has prioritized in terms of how it uses dollar on an annual basis out of its general revenue fund to pay for its priorities and it bonds a whole number of different items for infrastructure, schools, to pay for things it can’t afford in the short term,” Mathon said.

In this case, the $5.545 million the city is spending on the project will be paid for through the sale of bonds. All localities are evaluated by ratings agencies to determine their creditworthiness at paying bond holders over time. Charlottesville has a AAA bond rating which affords a lower interest rate. There are limits to how much a locality can borrow without jeopardizing that rating, and so the additional $3 million was above the city’s capacity. Hence the need to find a different way forward.

Walker said she was also concerned about the lack of details about phase 4. Mathon said it may take Piedmont Housing another year to begin to plan because of physical distancing protocols caused by the pandemic.

“In the schematic diagram that is included in the performance agreement, Phase 4 continues to be a bit of a placeholder because we are working in a co-design process with the residents,” he said. “Our focus on the last nine months, and COVID has complicated this of course, and has slowed down the process even further but our focus has been on the one hand preparing them and the community for start of construction and on the second hand we’re deep in the throes of final design of phase 2 so that we can apply for tax credits for LIHTC in March 2021 in a few months.”

Council reached consensus to move the loan to the consent agenda for the November 2 meeting.

Before we go, let’s hear one last time how the tax increment financing would work from Chris Engel.

“Essentially what the performance agreement does is use the tax increment that’s created by the project… PHA pays real estate tax that is assessed on the new project. And we would then transfer, the city would set aside as has been discussed, that amount to the [Charlottesville Economic Development Authority] and the EDA would grant back to PHA in this case 100 percent of the incremental taxes created by the project.”

The agreement has a 40 year term, but ends as soon as the EDA has granted a total of $6 million back to Piedmont Housing.

Walker voted for the agreement but said she still did not support it.

There will be a budget work session on capital financing in November, and interim City Manager John Blair said they could have a more full discussion about potential financing arrangements.

Councilor Michael Payne said he supported the agreement.

“I do think the timing is critical on these projects,” Payne said. “I do think that this has something that has helped made the project actually be able to come together and keep together the tight timelines for LIHTC applications and other funding sources and I do think that this is a real critical way to make sure able to be a a shovel-ready project that is able to happen.”

Council approves HUD-required recovery agreement for Charlottesville public housing

The Charlottesville City Council meeting on October 19, 2020 lasted until nearly midnight. When I began my reporting from it the next day, I ended up writing several hundred words about Council’s discussion of a performance agreement for direct city investment of $3 million in public housing renovation and development. I’m posting articles on other items that happened that night. 

The Charlottesville City Council has agreed to a recovery agreement that commits the city’s public housing agency to develop an action plan to address issues uncovered in an audit. 

“That audit found fiscal deficiencies, accounting errors with the collection of rent tenant account receivables so we were not collecting rent in our field,” said John Sales, who has been the executive director of Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority (CRHA) since this August. 

Listen to audio version of this story!

Following the audit, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development placed the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority on its “troubled” list based on a scoring system of how well agencies are performing. 

At their meeting on October 19, 2020, Sales stated his agency does not want to put people on the street. 

“We do believe in not evicting families because that just puts other stress on other services that the city has to fund,” Sales said. “We try not to evict any family for non-payment of rent.” 

Sales said CRHA works with families to help come up with repayment plans and to lower rents where possible. 

“We’ve actually created an eviction diversion program that we have asked to be funded through the [Community Development Block Grant] so that will come in front of you hopefully and it will get funded and that will allow us to work more with the families on non-payment rent,” Sales said.

According to a memo Sales sent to Council before the October 19 meeting, there were 163 CRHA households that owed back rent as of October 15. Later in the meeting, Council considered using a portion of the CARES Act funding to cover that backlog. 

But, the agency cannot collect rent on units that are empty. 

Sales said there were 64 vacant units when he arrived in August. 

“The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) begins to penalize Housing Authorities that have a vacancy rate above 3 percent,” Sales wrote in the memo. “The Housing Authority had a vacancy rate of approximately 17 percent.” 

Sales said that when he started there was a shortage of maintenance workers to fix up vacant units, but that has changed. Habitat for Humanity has helped refurbish seven units so far as part of an agreement with CRHA, and the agency has hired a contractor to get others moving.

“A contractor typically charges about $25,000 to turn a vacant unit, and it costs us around $11,000 to turn a vacant unit,” Sales said, adding they have hired a contractor for three units to get more units ready for new occupation for those on a wait list. He said the CRHA will fill all the units by the end of the year. That doesn’t include units at Crescent Halls that are being left open due to planned construction. 

In his memo, Sales outlined how he has identified other issues that need to be addressed, such as mismanagement of the housing choice voucher program. Still, he sounded a positive town.

“I think we’re heading in the right direction,” Sales said. “We still have a long way to go but we see the light at the end of the tunnel.” 

Council was appreciative of Sales’ efforts. 

“I’m in awe right now, that’s all,” said Vice Mayor Sena Magill. 

Councilor Heather Hill said she appreciate the candid nature of Sales’ reporting.

“I just feel like some of these things have come up in the past and have just been kind of put to the side or not really answered or addressed and I just really appreciate the transparency by which you have presented this information,” Hill said. 

City Councilor Michael Payne said much of the work conducted is what will be called for in the separate sustainability plan he has to provide to both HUD and Council. 

Mayor Nikuyah Walker is a member of the CRHA Board of Commissioners. She said she has had many friends and relatives who have lived in public housing, and there had been initial skepticism from some that Sales had the skills to do the job. 

“There were some people whose resume had more other things that you look for in this position but it took you no time to get in and show that even people who have been hired in the past had had all of those things listed and had previous experience, that you’ve done things that they in just a short window of time that they were unable to do during their tenure,” Walker said. “And some of those were a lot of years.” 

Resources:

Regional Transit Partnership discuss fare-free, lessons from the pandemic

The pandemic has affected much of how the community functions, and has drastically affected how transit agencies get people around the region. 

On October 22, 2020 the members of a working group of Albemarle and Charlottesville officials talked about lessons learned as buses have been running at reduced capacity due to the need for physical distancing. 

Take a listen to an audio version of this story!

Albemarle Supervisor Diantha McKeel is the chair of the Regional Transit Partnership. 

“The thought was today to have a work session for our group to discuss transit in light of the pandemic,” McKeel said. “Is our strategic plan still relevant? Do we need to articulate a new direction in some areas? What is absolutely the most important thing about transit today, which may not have been true when we were looking at our strategic plan?” 

The Regional Transportation Partnership has been meeting since October 2017 and is a forum to talk about ways to increase coordination between multiple transit agencies in our area. 

Brad Sheffield is the executive director of Jaunt, which is a regional transportation system that serves the city and surrounding counties. He said the pandemic has led to increased communications between his agency, Charlottesville Area Transit and the University Transit Service.

“Going forward there’s going to be a need for more and more communication and more positive communication about what safety measures are being taken and so forth,” Sheffield said. “We can’t just assume that something we put out today is going to be remembered two months from now.” 

But what if there are fewer potential passengers in the future? 

Albemarle Deputy Executive Trevor Henry said the county is putting together its budget for next year, and wanted to know what financial changes can be identified now. He said many companies may allow their employees to continue to work from home after the pandemic. 

“We didn’t have a work from home policy and we created one in three days whenever we forced everyone out of the office, and we’ve been able to keep county operations hit,” Henry said. He added that the county will expect to keep a virtual option open going forward. 

“We’ve upgraded all of our conference rooms and we’ve made the assumption that we’ll never have a meeting that everyone is in the room together,” Henry said. 

Sheffield said Jaunt has switched its dispatchers so they can work at home. That means they may not need to expand their administrative building. . 

“It’s really challenged the fact that we’ve been shoehorning our staff in the current facility that we have, and this has really shown that we can’t do that anymore,” Sheffield said. “We see that this is part of that future issue where we need better space planning now to just be ready for how we come out of this.”

And then there’s the cost of cleaning and disinfecting all of the buses. CAT Director Garland Williams said his agency is using money from the CARES Act to cover the high cost.

“There needs to continue to be that level of cleaning to make sure the public feels safe when riding public transportation,” Williams said. “Our cleaning bill is fairly high. We’re at half a million dollars already and growing.”    

Another topic is whether transit agencies will resume collecting fares after the pandemic. On CAT buses, passengers now enter through the side door bypassing the farebox as a safety precaution. McKeel said she wanted to know if that could be continued in the future as a way to boost ridership.  

Chip Boyles, the director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission, said he supported such a study but said the term “fare-free” can be misleading from a budgetary standpoint.

“A lot of people think fare-free and it’s not,” Boyles said. “Somebody’s paying. It just may not be the end consumer handing a dollar bill over to the driver. Somebody’s paying, but I have seen it directly experienced where there are a lot of benefits.”

During the pandemic, that means contactless transit. It also would mean not having to pay someone to account for collecting the fares, or installing expensive fareboxes. He said fare free transit usually works in college towns where the school picks up the tab. 

“Somebody writes one check instead of a million people handing over 75 cents,” Boyles said.

Williams said he believes CAT could go fare-free in the future and he is working on a pilot project.

Neal Sherman with the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation said his agency was in the process of developing a grant program for this purpose before the pandemic, but they want to use a different phrase.

“We are changing the terminology to zero fares,” Sherman said. 

Fares make up about ten percent of CAT’s budget, for instance. The University Transit Service is fare-free. UVA Parking and Transportation Director Becca White said the University pays about a quarter of million dollars to CAT for its employees to ride CAT buses fare-free. 

“We consider our program with CAT to be a reciprocal ridership program such that UTS provides service on Grady, Rugby Street, 14th Street, JPA, we just open the doors and anyone boards,” White said. “CAT used to run on Massie Road and Arlington Boulevard and Rugby Road and because of our coordination with our routes, CAT was able to reallocate resources to other routes and UTS became the public provider on some roads.” 

As the meeting was a work session, there were no decisions made. The TJPDC is awaiting news about whether it will get a planning grant from the DRPT to come up with a way to improve the regional vision as well as enhanced transit service in Albemarle. The Commonwealth Transportation Board did not make a decision at their meeting on Tuesday. 

Supervisor McKeel said her interest in transit leans toward finding ways to serve a growing urban population in the county. Albemarle pays for service by CAT, but the process to get new routes is a long and uncertain one. The county is working with Jaunt on potential on-demand service to augment CAT and UTS. 

“Fixed routes are not going to serve our population by themselves,” McKeel said. “We hardly have a proposal that comes to us now that doesn’t talk about the need for some sort of transit or on-demand, and we’re talking about transit stops that also offer opportunities for on-demand and looking at them as multimodal stops with bike racks, shelters, charging stations.”

The Regional Transit Partnership is next scheduled to meet in late January 2021.

Where will be in the pandemic by then? Stay tuned.

Two Pandemics, Two Centuries, One Town 1918 vs. 2020

The pandemic we’re in now is a historical echo of the so-called Spanish Flu outbreak of a hundred years ago. On October 21, the Albemarle County Historical Society invited Addeane Caelleigh to discuss her work “The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919 in Albemarle County and Charlottesville” from the 2017 Magazine of Albemarle County History.

Audio courtesy of the Albemarle Charlottesville Historical Society

Caelleigh is a retired UVA School of Medicine curriculum developer, and former editor of Academic Medicine, the Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges.

Addeane is interviewed by Dr. Michael Dickens — an honors graduate of Princeton University, M.D from Columbia University with residency training at UVA, and a practicing pediatric physician in Charlottesville for 35 years. In retirement, Mike volunteers for the Society, and is an author, researcher and interpreter of history.

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