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April 10, 2008

Supervisors adopt budget and tax rate

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At their meeting April 9, 2008, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors approved the County’s FY 2009 budget and set the 2008 real estate property tax rate.  The FY 2009 operational budget of $270,165,297 is a 2.6% increase over last year.  The total County budget is $334,656,795 after revenue sharing with the City, the capital budget, and a new reserve fund are all included.  That reflects a 9.6% increase over last year.

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While the budget and tax rate were the first items on their agenda, it took four and one-half hours for the Board to reach an agreement.  The Board was split 3-3 for much of the day with half the board favoring a 70 cent tax rate (Boyd, Dorrier, Rooker) and the other half favoring 71 cents (Mallek, Slutzky, Thomas).

In 2007, the Albemarle County real estate property tax rate was 68 cents.  At 71 cents, the median home will pay an additional $93 in taxes annually in 2008.  Charlottesville Tomorrow calculates this by using the 2007 Charlottesville Area Association of Realtors (CAAR) year-end median sales price for a home in Albemarle County ($310,000) and calculates the difference between a $0.68 tax rate and a $0.71 tax rate on that home.  The value of the home is held constant.  

Figures cited by the Daily Progress and provided by Albemarle County use, as a benchmark, a home with a starting value of $250,000 in 2003 and an ending value of $384,529 in 2008.  It includes a downward adjustment of home value based on 2008’s average reassessments (-1.56% for this benchmark home).  Using that methodology, the annual taxes paid will increase by $73.92.

In the end, the Board adopted, by a 4-2 vote, a 71 cent tax rate with the stipulation that one cent of tax revenues ($1.614 million) be set aside and only used if projected revenues are less than budgeted during the next fiscal year.  Any funds not utilized for revenue shortfalls will be returned to the Capital Improvements Program (CIP) budget at the end of the year.

Supervisors Ken Boyd (Rivanna) and Lindsay Dorrier (Scottsville) voted against the tax rate increase, though both were willing at one point in the meeting to consider an effective rate of 70.5 cents as a compromise.  That compromise was initially ruled out when County staff told the Board that their computer system could not handle a fractional tax rate without significant modifications. The tax rate had to be a round number.

After an early break in the negotiations, Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) returned to the meeting and proposed that the rate be set at 71 cents with the funds generated by a half a penny being protected in a “lock box” for use in the event of unanticipated revenue shortfalls.  The Board discussed the merits of the “lock box” approach, but the compromise was not sufficient to move the Board off their stalemate.

At about 5:00 in the afternoon, the Board recessed to allow staff time to explore the feasibility of having two rates, 70 cents for the first half of the year and 71 cents for the second half.  After that break, County Executive Bob Tucker told the Board that staff would not have enough time to implement a “split rate” proposal.  

County Assessor Bruce Woodzell said a lot of manual work would be required to prepare tax bills because of the County’s inflexible financial information systems.  He said that their schedule for mailing tax notices would not allow for such a change.  County Attorney Larry Davis pointed out that when a split rate was last utilized in FY 2002, the Board had that approach as an early assumption in the budget process giving staff time to prepare the computer systems for the change.

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Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) and Ken Boyd (Rivanna)

Boyd, Dorrier, Rooker reiterated their belief that a 70 cent rate would adequately fund the County budget.  Rooker expressed concern about funding new or frozen positions because of the obligation that would place on future budgets.  Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller), Ann Mallek (White Hall), and Slutzky lobbied for additional funds to support initiatives including the filling of frozen positions in the Community Development Department, for the hiring of additional police officers, and for affordable housing initiatives related to the request from the IMPACT organization.  

Balancing the County’s strategic planning goals against the available revenues was a common theme in the discussions.  Board members favoring the higher tax rate pointed to data the Board had received about the backlog of warrants that the police department is unable to serve as justification for supporting the hiring of additional officers.  They linked this to the staffing goals in the Board’s strategic plan which were driving the County Executive’s budget.

Rooker said that staffing goals should not be the ultimate test for support.  “The test of whether you are providing good police services, for example, is not the number of police officers.  It’s whether or not the job is being done, “ said Rooker. “Our surveys have consistently indicated that our police force does an excellent job.  So I don’t necessarily think that we have to, every year, be adding 4 or 5 police officers.”

“Strategic plans are just forecasts, you’ve got to live with the realities with which you are faced with,” said Boyd.

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Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett)

With “split rates” and “lock boxes” unable to break the logjam, the Board recessed for dinner.  When the Board reconvened, it was Rooker that proposed the final compromise for a 71 cent rate with the stipulation that one cent of tax revenues be set aside and only used to cover revenue shortfalls.  Rooker favored having any unused funds return to the budget for capital needs.  As part of the budget, the Supervisors had already reduced their funding of the capital budget and this adjustment to the “lock box” concept won the support of Mallek, Slutzky and Thomas.  

Boyd said he could not support a rate beyond 70 cents.  “I’ve actually come up [from 68 cents] to go to the 70 cents and I think that’s about as far as I’m willing to go,” said Boyd.  Dorrier also said 71 cents was not a rate he could support. “I think if we go up two cents, we are already increasing the  budget…the extra cent is going to break the bank,” said Dorrier. “We’ve got people on fixed incomes in the County struggling to make ends meet.”

Brian Wheeler

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