February 25, 2021: Northam eases some restrictions on outdoor events; Albemarle presented with $466 million budget for FY22

  
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On today’s show: 

  • Albemarle seeking feedback into Rio Road corridor study 

  • Albemarle Board of Supervisors are presented with $466 million budget for FY22

  • Governor Northam announces some easings of COVID restrictions on events


As the pandemic in  Virginia nears the one-year anniversary, Governor Ralph Northam announced yesterday the next steps on lifting restrictions now that certain milestones are being hit such as vaccination targets. 

“We’ve administered almost 1.7 million doses overall,” Northam said. “More than 1.1 million Virginians have received the first dose. That’s about 13.5 percent of the population.” 

Daily vaccination numbers are down due to supply chain issues related to winter weather. Today the seven-day average is 32,569 a day, short of the goal of 50,000 a day. Northam expressed confidence that would change soon.

“Last week, President Biden’s administration announced a bump in vaccine allocations from states,” Northam said. “They also increased the number of vaccine doses going to pharmacies in the federal pharmacy partnership. That means more pharmacies are coming online this week to start giving shots through that federal partnership.”

That will bring vaccines to pharmacies at Walgreens, Wal-Mart, Giant, Food City, and independent stores. Details are to come, but Northam said the efforts will work with local health districts to coordinate off-site locations. 

“Off-site mask clinics will allow Wal-Mart to vaccinate a few hundred people a day and it will allow them to choose different locations each week,” Northam said. “All of these pharmacies will prioritize those 65 and over and all vaccinations are by appointment only so again, please don’t just show up but go onto our website or make the phone call.”

Another factor leading to the decision to ease restrictions is the pending approval of the Johnson & Johnson version of the vaccine. Another that the vaccination call center is now in operation and the goal is to have them help get people to appointments at pharmacies. Before going into details, Northam reminded Virginia why the state of emergency led to social distancing and more. 

“Last year to slow the spread of the virus we put limits on how many people could be together at various events or in certain places of business,” Northam said. “And it worked. As our COVID cases and hospitalizations went down, we slowly raised those limits through phased reopenings. But as the cold weather and holidays approached, cases started getting higher then ever before. So we took the sensible step and reintroduced some of those mitigation measures.”

Now, cases numbers are going down while vaccination numbers are going up. Northam said that means it is time to slowly begin to loosen up on those restrictions.

The following measures go into place on March 1: 

  • Alcohol sales at restaurants can now continue until midnight (was 10 p.m)

  • Curfew between midnight and 5 a.m. is lifted

  • Outdoor gatherings can increase to 25 people, up from the current 10

  • Outdoor entertainment venues can increase attendance from 250 people to 30 percent of capacity with a cap of 1,000 people

  • Overnight summer camps can begins operation on May 1

“If the trends continue as they are, cases down and vaccinations up, I would expect that by April we could be able to continue the 30 percent measure but remove the 1,000 person cap for outdoor venues,” Northam said. (read more in the press release)

Today the seven-day average for new cases dropped to 1,869 but today’s count increased to 2,036. The Blue Ridge Health District reports another 75 cases, with 37 from Albemarle and 21 from Charlottesville. The fatality count continues to rise as a backlog of death certificate data is entered into the system. There have now been 133 deaths in the Blue Ridge Health District among the 7,963 reported by the Virginia Department of Health.

Yesterday the Virginia House of Delegates approved a bill to require localities to provide in-person education as a default by this fall.  Republicans had sought to add an emergency clause to SB1303 immediately require in-person instruction rather than wait until July. Here’s Delegate John Avoli (R-Staunton). 

“We cannot afford to punt this issue another four months down the road, rendering the remained of this school year and the entirety of March, April, May and June unaffected by this crucial legislation.” Avoli said. “Please Madame Speaker, let us open the schoolhouse doors through the efforts of Senator Dunnavunt and Delegate Van Valkenburg.”

However, Delegate Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) said he shared the concerns about getting students back to school but noted that the bill did not have the votes to pass the Senate with an emergency clause, which would take a four-fifths vote. 

“This is a serious bill right now with Delegate Van Valkenberger’s amendments on it, it’s a serious policy bill about moving things forward and making things happen,” Simon said. “If we voted for an emergency clause and put an emergency clause on this bill, it would undoubtedly fail.” 

Those amendments added provisions allowing students to opt out and to allow schools to shut down if there is an outbreak. The vote to reject the amendment was 51 to 47, but the bill later passed the House of Delegates 88 to 9. The Virginia Senate approved the House amendments today on a 36 to 3 vote. 

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Albemarle County Executive Jeffrey Richardson unveiled a $466 million recommended operating budget for the Board of Supervisors to review over the several weeks.  (review the recommended FY22 budget)

“This year’s budget theme pulls forward the budget theme year from fiscal year 21 which was ‘Respond, Recover and Recalibrate’,” Richardson said.

That budget was altered on the fly as the economy was shut down to in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. Positions were frozen and both operating and capital expenditures were cut back while the financial picture became more clear. Now, Richardson has presented a budget that allows for the county to move forward with lessons learned during the pandemic.

“This year we’ve been added to that theme the word resilient because this recommended budget is intended to make certain strategic investments to transform our organization as the community around us transforms,” Richardson said. 

One of those investments is the creation of an Office of Broadband Access, intended to move Albemarle towards universal internet coverage.

“The office will have two recommended [full-time equivalents] that will report through the County Executive’s work to support the work of expanding access in urban and rural communities,” Richardson said. “Two very different approaches and needs. The full force of this organization will support this office which will work to tackle broadband using the equity lens.”

The budget does not anticipate an increase in the property tax rate, which will remain at $0.854 cents per $100 of assessed value. Residential assessments are up by 2.8 percent though commercial assessments are down 5.5 percent. 

Richardson’s budget includes a move toward a $15 an hour minimum wage for county employees as well as a two percent “market adjustment.” 

Here are some highlights from the budget:

  • An expansion of Mountain View Elementary will proceed

  • Five new firefighters will be hired to support daytime service at North Garden Volunteer Fire Company, plus a new training position and a new ambulance

  • $3 million in funding for “Business Process Optimization” program to update land use permitting process and other government systems

  • $600,000 in funding for affordable housing, to be determined (in FY21)

  • $600,000 in funding to implement Climate Action Plan, to be determined (in FY21)

  • $25 million to fund the already-approved renovation of Albemarle courts in downtown Charlottesville

  • Two additional positions in social services for “family preservation”

  • Budget is based on creation of a local tax on cigarettes that would go in effect Jan 1, 2022

Near the end of his presentation, Richardson sounded an optimistic tone.

“Board, we believe that during the course of FY22, our economy will continue to stabilize,” Richardson said. “We’ll know a lot more about our economy, our customer service expectations and what the public needs and expects, and the way we work.”

Supervisors did not have many specific questions during the presentation, but Samuel Miller District representative Liz Palmer said she supported the investments in public safety at North Garden. 

“The North Garden Volunteer Fire Department is a wonderful building that’s been kept up by the community for many years,” Palmer said. “It is a prime location for an ambulance because there are so many accidents on 29 South down there.”

The first public hearing will be held virtually on March 3 at 6 p.m. Work sessions begin on March 10 and continue throughout the month. Stay tuned to the Week Ahead newsletter to learn when. 

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Tonight, the Places29-Rio Community Advisory Committee will get a briefing on the Rio Road Corridor Study, a project underway in that is in part a response to opponents of recent rezoning proposals on Rio Road East. They argued Albemarle County needed to address congestion on the street before approving any more residential units. The firm Line + Grade was hired last year to conduct the work following their work on a similar study of Avon Street Extended.

The Albemarle Planning Commission got a look at the study's scope at their meeting on February 16. (project website)

"The scope of the study is from the Rio-29 Small Area Plan area at the west to the intersection of the John Warner Parkway," said David Benish, one of the county's planning managers. "This study will also be taking into account traffic from existing and potential development in those approaching segments to this corridor."

The study's scope will evaluate the roadway and develop future projects to improve safety and create new infrastructure.

"It also will provide solutions to enhance the mobility and access for all users and all common travel methods," Benish said. 

Benish said this will be first time that Albemarle's Office of Equity and Inclusion will use their new equity impact assessment process.

"OEI's initial demographic analysis of the area reveals a corridor that has a very diverse population regarding race, age, income, homeownership status and transportation needs," Benish said. 

A questionnaire for the project is currently live and there will be a pair of kickoff meetings on March 11 and March 12. Benish also told the Planning Commission that the Virginia Department of Transportation has recently recommended funding for a roundabout at the intersection of Rio Road East and the John Warner Parkway. 


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