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November 03, 2008

Supervisors provide direction to staff at retreat; ACE, transportation funding could be cut

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The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has provided direction to County staff regarding additional programs that may be cut in order to balance the County’s budget this year. The Board agreed that funding for the Acquisition of Conservation Easements (ACE) program, as well as funding for transportation and urban infrastructure projects, could be cut in order to balance a projected $1.8 million budget shortfall for the FY2010 budget. County Executive Bob Tucker will now factor the Supervisors’ feedback into the County’s five-year financial plan, as well as the budget for FY2010.  The projected deficit already reflects decreases in state and local revenues, no raises for staff, 57 frozen positions, and no new initiatives to address the strategic plan’s goals.  

County supervisors began taking strategic retreats in 2005, at a time when the County’s economic forecast was a lot brighter. The financial forecast gives Supervisors and County staff the ability to determine how spending decisions made in one year affect the County budget in future years. No final decisions were made at the most recent retreat, which was held on October 24, 2008 at the Virginia Department of Forestry Building. That location was chosen because the County did not have to pay to use the space.

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County Executive Bob Tucker

Assistant County Executive Tom Foley took Supervisors through the current iteration of the financial forecast, and said that they will make structural changes to the way the County does business.
“It is a sobering picture,” Foley said. “And it is going to require that we think differently. Not always about not doing something, but doing it differently, or how to take advantage of what we do have  and make the most progress we can possibly can given the circumstances.”

Foley said the County departments have been asked to provide 5% contingency plans, and added that those plans are being implemented. Discretionary spending has been reduced by $1 million through the end of FY2010, including the existing year’s budget. Agencies will not receive any increase in funding. There will now be 25 more frozen positions in general County government staff (57 positions total for FY2010), though public safety has largely been exempted

One cent of last year’s property tax increase was placed in a “lock-box” to only be used in fiscal emergency, and that money will be released to deal with the current fiscal year’s shortfall. Another penny of the tax rate will no longer go towards the Capital Improvement Program budget, and $200,000 will be taken from the Board’s reserve fund. Even with these steps, Foley said the County has a significant shortfall for next year’s budget.

“We still have $1.8 million left that we have to get to balance this picture,” Foley said.
Each cent brings in about $1.6 million into the County coffers. Because by policy 60% of new revenues collected go to the County school system, he said it would take a three-cent increase in property taxes to close the gap. Foley said another choice would be to make further reductions, and that the strategic retreat provided the opportunity for Supervisors to make decisions about funding the ACE program, transportation projects and urban infrastructure. One cent from the property tax rate funds ACE, and two cents go to the transportation fund. The County does not borrow money to pay for these programs, and has been using a pay-as-you-go strategy.

Foley said the County is also considering furloughs and reduced work-weeks, as well as property tax increases. He said fees are largely off the table because they have already been raised.
The current year five plan anticipates a one-cent tax increase in FY2010 as well as an additional cent in FY2011. The plan also currently assumes salary increases will resume in FY2011, but does not assume that positions can be unfrozen.

PUBLIC SAFETY

Staff led the six Supervisors through an assessment of the objectives of the strategic plan. 
On public safety, Assistant County Executive Bryan Elliot said that the County remains committed to achieving a goal of having a ratio of 1.5 police officers for every 1,000 citizens. However, the County also is 18 officers short of that goal with 223 officers currently serving. Elliot said that there may not be revenues to hire additional police officers until after FY2010. On fire services, Elliot said staff recommends extending the terms of a contract with Charlottesville where the City’s fire department serves the Pantops area. Construction of new fire stations for Pantops and Ivy have been pushed back further to FY2013 and FY2014 respectively.

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Supervisor Ann Mallek (White Hall)

Supervisor Ann Mallek (White Hall) said she thought it should be a goal of the County to pursue a regional, borderless system for fire rescue.  Fire Chief Dan Eggleston said that he and Charlottesville Chief Charles Werner have been working towards such an arrangement, and that the eventual construction of the Ivy and Pantops stations would be a major step towards that outcome. She also said she would like the Board to discuss whether response times by fire-rescue is a good metric for the County to gauge performance.

Supervisor David Slutzky (Rio) asked other Board members if they wanted to revisit the question of paying to hire additional police officers. He said the County’s strategic public safety goals set up an expectation that there will be more officers, but that the Board ends up sacrificing this goal to balance the County budget each year.

Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) pointed to the County’s most recent performance survey, which he said showed the public is satisfied with existing public safety services.  He said budgeting is about deploying resources where they are most needed, and that the County has many goals that are not being fully funded.

On  economic vitality, staff recommended continuing a $250,000 commitment to an Economic Opportunity Fund and also recommending renewing memberships in the Thomas Jefferson Partnership for Economic Development and the Chamber of Commerce.

Chairman Ken Boyd (Rivanna) said he would like to see guidelines developed for the usage of the Economic Opportunity Fund and said it was currently languishing.   Tom Foley said staff is also recommending the creation of guidelines to govern how the fund will be used. Slutzky said the $250,000 fund should be on the table as a potential cut. 

PROTECTING NATURAL RESOURCES

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Supervisors David Slutzky (Rio) and Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller)

On protecting natural resources, Foley said one of the big decisions facing the Board is whether a stormwater utility fee should be assessed.  He will make a presentation to the Board in the near future before the budget season begins. That could bring in additional revenue.

On conservation easements, Foley said the County is on track to meet its goal of increasing the amount of land under protection. However, staff wanted feedback from the Supervisors on whether the $1.6 million slated for next year should continue to go to purchase easements given the budget shortfall.

Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) said the County has worked hard to gain community trust in the program, and that she would hate to see it cut. Slutzky said he agreed, but that he was “slightly more protective of transit” over ACE, but said both needed to be on the table “with profound reluctance expressed.” Slutzky then introduced the idea of agreeing to suspend funding for the ACE program to help with the shortfall, but to use some of the money to hire a consultant to help enroll interested landowners in other conservation easement programs.

Boyd said that he was intrigued by that idea.  Rooker said he could support a one-year suspension, because “in a year like this, everything is on the table.” Slutzky asked for staff to come back with some ideas of how such a one-year consultancy would work.

MASTER PLANNING

On master planning, Foley said staff will not meet its goal of completing all master plans by the end of 2010. He said the County had made good progress by completing the Pantops Master plan, but the Village of Rivanna and Places29 Master Plans are still working their way through the planning process. The Southern Urban Area Master Plan has not yet been begun. He said spacing out the expectations for completion of master plans would provide a break for an understaffed Community Development Department, who are scheduled to review the Crozet Master Plan beginning next summer.
Community Development Director Mark Graham said the Southern Urban Area Master Plan could be delayed because the past Area B Study done in conjunction with UVA and the City already includes a “significant framework” for how to guide growth in that region. He said the County was not rewriting the Crozet plan, but would instead revisit it to make any necessary corrections.

Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier (Scottsville) said that he thought the Southern Urban Area Master Plan should be done as soon as possible to prepare for Biscuit Run. Boyd said he wanted to know how much money was being spent on master planning.

Rooker said he supported staff’s recommendation. “We do need to move forward and get completed the ones that have been started. The worst thing you can do is to start a process, engage the public, and not finish it.”

Sally Thomas wondered if postponing review of the Crozet Master Plan might be one way to save money in the upcoming fiscal year. “People are willing to make sacrifices if they understand the purposes of what’s going on,” Thomas said. “There are other things in the community development work plan that I’d like to see done.” Slutzky was also concerned that the Crozet Master Plan would be revisited before the Places29 Master Plan is completed.

TRANSPORTATION

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Supervisors Mallek, Ken Boyd (Rivanna) and Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett)

Foley also said the County would have a hard time meeting is strategic goals of paying for local and regional projects. Foley acknowledged that the Meadowcreek Parkway is going to go to construction despite the economic slowdown, but said County staff are concerned about future transportation revenues. The financial plan does not contain any additional money to expand transit, according to Foley. Staff is recommending revisiting the inclusion of two-cents into a transportation fund that currently has a $6 million balance and is not committed to any projects.

“The question is, what can we do with the money that we have now in these difficult times?” Foley asked. He also said the Board needs to give direction on how to allocate money between roads and transit? Should County money be used to build the critical connectors necessary to implement the Master Plans? Should there be a local priority list to determine how to fund those projects?

Dennis Rooker said he didn’t think there would be much chance of paying for new projects. He said that the County should continue to pursue the enabling authority for a Regional Transit Authority, even if the chances of separately getting enabling authority for a funding mechanism are slim. Slutzky said he thought the County and the City should go forward with both.

Boyd said the City should be pressed to spend the revenue-sharing money it receives from the County on regional infrastructure projects. “There are $17 million that are going into this fund that are going into the City’s coffers, and in my mind, things like regional transportation or the transit authority and the regional need for affordable housing, should be put back on the table as something that should be addressed with some of those funds.”

Slutzky said he was not supportive of taking money from the transportation fund to pay for other projects, but said he was willing to use the $6 million currently in the fund for projects. He also said he did not want to end the transfer of 2 cents a year to that fund, but that it should be on the table. Boyd and  Mallek also did not want to take it off the table. Supervisor Rooker said he wanted to also keep the issue open.

“I think these are pretty extraordinary times,” Rooker said. “I do think that this is a time when we might want to consider suspending that for a period of time to deal with a crisis situation.” However, Rooker said the County should not raid the transportation fund, and even suggested the Board should hold a work session to determine the best way to spend the money. Foley said one would be scheduled.

FUNDING URBAN INFRASTRUCTURE

The final decision of the day regarded funding for urban infrastructure. Tom Foley explained that there are some projects connected with the Crozet and Pantops Master Plans that are currently scheduled to be paid from the operating budget. Would the board be willing to delay those projects in order to help address the shortfall? 

Rooker said he did not want to raid funds for existing projects, but did suggest he would be open to not setting aside money this year for those projects.

County Executive Bob Tucker said his staff would come back with more information before the financial plan is brought back at the Board’s next meeting. He concluded by asking one more question. Would Supervisors be willing to consider a tax increase to deal with the shortfall? Slutzky said he wanted to see what a tax increase might yield before the County makes a decision on the transportation fund, ACE and urban infrastructure. Slutzky said he would like to try to find a way to add salary increases and new initiatives back into the budget if possible.

OTHER FEEDBACK FROM SUPERVISORS

Sally Thomas said she was not satisfied in the County’s progress in protecting the rural areas. She said that was concerned that many of the 77 strategies called for in the Rural Areas Section of the Comprehensive Plan have not been accomplished.  Lori Allshouse said the department is down 2.5 positions, which has made it more difficult to accomplish the County’s strategic goals.  Facilitating the retreat, Lee Catlin, the County’s Community relations Officer, said that staff felt like they had taken the strategies as far as they could and thus it was considered by staff to be largely completed. Catlin suggested the goal be updated in the future if there were more specific goals the Board wanted to address.  Supervisor Dennis Rooker said he would like to go back and revisit the Rural Areas Plan at a future work session.

Ken Boyd said he wanted to be able to plot out the ramifications on budgetary decisions across the five-year financial plan. He also wanted to know how much money is being spent on consultant fees and suggested cutting that figure in half would be one way to bridge the shortfall.  Staff will present the latest five-year financial forecast on November 5, 2008.

Sean Tubbs

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