Feb 8 • 20M

February 8, 2022: Council directs staff to advertise a ten-cent increase on the Charlottesville property tax rate

Plus: Charlottesville Fire Chief Hezedean Smith offers vision for 21st century fire-service

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Sean Tubbs
Regular updates of what's happening in local and regional government in and around Charlottesville, Virginia from an award-winning journalist with nearly thirty years of experience.
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As the third decade of the 21st century approaches, we all find ourselves living in a world we didn’t create and we do not understand. There are too many current challenges to list here, but I suspect many readers and listeners feel a lot of tension about the future. The goal of Charlottesville Community Engagement is to provide a bit of relief in the form of information and context, all with an aim of helping as many people as possible at least try to understand. I’m Sean Tubbs, and that hope is what’s fueled my entire career. 

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On today’s program:
  • Charlottesville’s Fire Chief gives an update on his efforts to move the Fire Department into the 21st century by playing a major EMS role 

  • Dr. Denise Bonds of the Blue Ridge Health District updates City Council on COVID and vaccinations 

  • And City Council tells staff to advertise a tax rate increase of ten cents as they build the budget year for fiscal year 2023

The first shout-out goes to LEAP

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Charlottesville Pandemic update

All of today’s program focuses on Council and let’s start with the second thing first, followed by the last thing second, and the first thing last. 

The director of the Blue Ridge Health District appeared before Charlottesville City Council last night for another update on the pandemic. Dr. Denise Bonds reminded Council there’s been a surge of COVID cases since December that is only just now beginning to recede.

“This of course represents omicron, the highly contagious variant that causes thousands and thousands of cases across the United States and really the world,” Dr. Bonds said. 

Today the Virginia Department of Health reports another 4,689 new cases and the percent positivity has further declined to 19.1 percent. 

Dr. Bonds said there is still a high transmission risk in the community that’s much higher than at most parts of the pandemic. She recommends people continue to be vigilant. 

“Even though generally omicron is much milder and we have a large percentage of our population that are vaccinated and thus either weren’t infected or didn’t suffer illness that was as serious, there’s a high number of unvaccinated individuals in our community who are still driving very high hospital numbers,” Dr. Bonds said. 

Dr. Bonds said this surge also saw increases in cases with children under the age of 11, particularly with vaccines still not being authorized for those under 5 but that may happen in the near future. 

“However the numbers are really still being driven by adults at this point in time,” Dr. Bonds said. 

So far, Dr. Bonds said the Omicron subvariant has yet to be found in Virginia. She urges people to continue to get vaccinated.

“There have continued to be individuals that get their first vaccination and we’re up by almost a thousand individuals since the last time I spoke with you about a month ago so that’s great!” Dr. Bonds said. 

Dr. Bonds also said it is crucial that people who have not had their booster dose yet to get it as soon as possible. She also encourages people to upgrade their mask from cloth to at least a surgical or medical mask. 

Yesterday, the Virginia Supreme Court declined to hear a lawsuit filed by parents in Chesterfield County against Governor Glenn Youngkin’s revocation of a mask mandate in public schools. Councilor Sena Magill asked Dr. Bonds her opinion.

“The CDC definitely recommends that mask use is an important mitigation strategy for both adults and children in school,” Dr. Bonds said. “I no longer have school age children but if I did have school age children I would have them wear masks in school.” 

Dr. Bonds said the long-term ramifications of a COVID infection are not yet known because even after nearly two years of a pandemic, the virus is still novel. 

For a list of places where you can get a vaccine, visit the Blue Ridge Health District website

Council directs staff on tax rate 

So far this year, Council has had two discussions of the budget for the next fiscal year but they gave their first significant direction Monday night. At their work session last Thursday, Council were told they needed to decide whether they wanted to advertise an increase in the tax rate above 95 cents per $100 of assessed value. For all of that discussion, go back to Saturday’s installment of this newsletter

Senior Budget Analyst Krisy Hammill said that a five-cent increase in the tax rate would not be enough to cover the additional debt service for a capital improvement plan that includes $75 million for renovations to Buford Middle School. Council also wants to honor the goal of putting $10 million toward affordable housing initiative for at least ten years. 

“In actuality, the five-cent tax increase does not afford the $75 million addition,” Hammill said.

Hammill showed a variety of different scenarios, but said five-cents are all that is needed to be dedicated to capital. 

“Ten cents we don’t need,” Hammill said. “Seven isn’t quite there but seven and a half is a little more than we need so I think we’re somewhere seven and eight cents to comfortably cover $75 million.” 

The update to Council was not on the agenda for the meeting but was delivered during the report from the Interim City Manager. (February 7 presentation)

Deputy City Manager Ashley Marshall said comparing tax rates doesn’t tell the whole picture. For instance, Roanoke has a tax rate of $1.22 per assessed value, but there’s a reason. 

“The average median house cost is $225,000 so when you think of that and a $1.22 tax rate, it’s going to hit a little different than in Loudoun County, where the average median home value is $625,000,” Marshall said. 

This year, residential assessments went up 11.7 percent and 67 households lost the ability to apply for tax relief because they now exceed the $375,000 cap. The city would have to ask the General Assembly for a charter amendment to increase that amount. 

Hammill showed a slide that depicted how much of a tax increase would occur. For instance, a hypothetical property assessed at $300,000 paid $3,487 in 2021. That would increase to $3,895 in 2022 without a tax increase. That would increase to $4,305 in 2022 with a ten cent tax increase. 

Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders said a ten cent tax increase would also allow more funding for the Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund to meet the affordable housing fund, a local match to extend a federal grant for firefighters (see below) and more. 

That had the support of Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade.

“I think that at least even though we may not do the whole ten cents to give the staff direction tonight at least to go with that so we know we can’t go higher but we can certainly go lower,” Wade said. 

Councilor Michael Payne said he would support that rate. 

“We’re not even having a serious conversation until you begin with a ten cent real estate tax increase because otherwise it is not affordable,” Payne said. “I’m comfortable with advertising that at the rate to start out conversation but I still don’t think that gets us to a point where we are having a realistic conversation about the state of our budget.”

Mayor Lloyd Snook said he was concerned about raising the property tax rate this year because of the assessment increase, but called Charlottesville undertaxed. He said he wanted to increase a half-percent raise in the meals tax. That would yield just over $1.25 million according to staff projections. 

“At meals tax, we are at the moment I believe just a little on the low side and that may give us a little more than a million plus a year,” Snook said. 

Councilor Brian Pinkston said he supported the advertisement of ten cents.

“I’m not personally convinced yet that we need to raise it by a dime,” Pinkston said. “Maybe we do. Maybe it’s seven and a half cents. I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just a nickel but for me it is just for the purposes of this conversation tonight is the advertisement piece.” 

Councilor Sena Magill took ownership.

“I support advertising it,” Magill said. “It was my idea.” 

With that, the recommendation was officially made and check the classified section of the Daily Progress this weekend. The unscheduled conversation took an hour. 

At this point in mind, do remember that advertising a tax rate is not the same as adopting one. There are a lot more variables that may come into play between now and April. 

Some other budget items that were brought up include the potential of using $3 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to pay back the general fund for the use of FY21 surplus money to pay COVID-related bonuses to employees. The school system is also hoping to use up to $8 million in ARPA funding toward school infrastructure above and beyond school reconfiguration.

“That’s still a number which is not in any of the scenarios that I presented to you,” Hammill said. 

Hammill said the budget staff is anticipating a surplus in FY22 as well as in previous years. 

“A lot of our big revenues, they are performing better than we had originally projected as we continue to recover from COVID,” Hammill said. 

Shout out to the Sisters Project Peru:

In today’s second subscriber-supported public service announcement, this Friday an art auction will be held at the Fry’s Spring Beach Club to help raise funds for a sustainable medical clinic in rural Peru. The Sisters Project Peru was created to increase access to to healthcare in order to improve quality of life and empower women in Huacahuasi, a rural village in the Sacred Valley of Peru. The art auction will be held from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. with light refreshment and live music. Covid protocol is in effect and masks are required. Learn more at SistersProjectPeru.com. Registration in advance is required.

Fire Chief Smith presents 21st century vision for the Charlottesville Fire Department

In the early part of the City Council meeting, Fire Chief Hezedean Smith has a long conversation with the five-elected officials. Smith has been in the position since December 2020 and he wanted to reflect on the time so far. 

“There’s been a lot of tragedy within our community and fortunately our firefighters, they remain committed in terms of serving the community to their fullest, in spite of COVID and in spite of all the other challenges that they face,” Smith said. 

Last year, a structure fire on Cherry Avenue killed two people, the first fatalities from a fire since 2010. Smith said another challenge was the fire on January 13 at the Charlottesville Towers apartment complex in North Downtown. No one was killed, but many residents were displaced and returned to smoke-damaged units. 

“We’re committed and we’re embracing the forces that are impacting the 21st century fire and emergency services in our community, certainly in alignment with what’s going on across the United States, “ Smith said. “Charlottesville is no stranger to multiple all-hazards type of incidents that we have to be prepared to respond to.” 

During his time, the Fire Department has adopted a strategic plan which is “employee-driven.” Chief Smith said the goal is to become a “21st century fire service” as defined by a white paper issued by the Center for Public Safety Excellence. (read the white paper) (EMS Agenda 2050)

“And alongside that, there’s an EMS agenda for the future which kind of looks at how you should prepare yourselves now as we move forward into the future and what are the elements related to an EMS system?”  Smith asked. “Fortunately for us we are a fire-based EMS system service model which is a little bit different than it was years ago when we were just focused only on fire. We are an all-hazards department.”

Before Smith arrived, the Federal Emergency Management Agency awarded Charlottesville a nearly $3.5 million grant under the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response program. That allowed the fire department to hire 15 additional personnel. 

A slide from Chief Smith’s presentation (download)

Last year the dispatch system was changed in order to speed up response times. 

“About eight minutes, ideally,” Smith said. “That’s the framework that we have established and ultimately we have demonstrated through a GIS analysis to confirm that we should be able to arrive at an incident within that period of time.” 

That dispatch system also matches the system used by Albemarle County in order to help regional cooperation and mutual aid. 

“And we are just basically trying to align our protocols and our response model to meet the needs of our community so at any one time we know where all of our units are located in the city,” Smith said. 

Smith said that later this month the Fire Department will release an app called PulsePoint to alert people to others who are having cardiac arrests nearby in the hopes of getting cardio-pulmonary resuscitation happening as early as possible. 

“We provide CPR training, we identify neighborhoods that are at risk, and education them on proper living and things of that sort,” Smith said. “It’s not just about running with lights and sirens to medical calls and car accidents and things of that nature. It’s actually becoming more engaged in our community and educating our community and hopefully they can recognize early signs and symptoms of strokes, heart attacks, and things of that sort.”

Smith said data shows that the 10th and Page neighborhood in particular is first in cardiac arrests and third in diabetic emergencies.  

Last year, representatives from the Charlottesville-Albemarle Rescue Squad (CARS) complained to Council that the new dispatch system shuts them out of service calls. Smith said he has since met with their chief and other top officials and said they will play a role in the future. 

“One of their goals, goal 3, looks at mobile integrated health, exploring roles of the providers with mental health,” Smith said. “CARS’ community involvement, CPR training, stop-the-bleed training, all of those things are of essence for us,” Smith said. 

Smith’s appearance before Council came at the same time the budget for FY23 is being put together, including the five-year capital plan. The draft budget shows an additional spending of $1.2 million for a replacement for the bypass fire station, for a total of $4.2 million in authorization for bonds that have not yet been issued. Smith hopes Council will continue to support this expenditure and consider others in the future. 

“It’s dilapidated, it’s sad,” Chief Smith said. “I don’t know if you’ve been in there but it’s unfortunate that our firefighters have to live there. Ultimately the Ridge Street fire station also has to be on the roadmap as well because that is just as old if not older with cracks in the wall that we’ve been monitoring for a number of years.”

The Ridge Street station was built in 1959. The bypass station was built in 1950, according to the city’s property records. 

Senior Budget Analyst Krisy Hammill said that additional money should fully fund the project. 

Chief Smith also said firefighters also have to be paid more and said they are not making as much as those in Albemarle. 

“I am pleading with you to support our firefighters because it ties in with retention, it ties in with recruitment, it ties in with their families,” Smith said. “I can probably count on one hand how many of them live in the city of Charlottesville. They travel for hours sometime to come and serve this community.” 

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