Feb 8 • 25M

February 8, 2023: Three out of four Councilors not willing to raise real property tax rate this year; City advertises bids for Buford Middle renovation

Plus: Your input is requested on a survey for housing needs; The Bridge PAI is moving to the Downtown Mall

 
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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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So far, there have been six Wednesdays in the year 2023, but which one is this? How can we be sure that they have all happened in order? One way is to mark down time as often as possible. Perhaps in a regular newsletter and podcast that seeks to inform readers and listeners about things they might not otherwise know? Perhaps something called Charlottesville Community Engagement? I’ll Sean Tubbs, fairly certain that this Wednesday is February 8.

On today’s show:

  • Another shooting in Charlottesville sends one to the hospital

  • The city of Charlottesville has released an invitation for bids for firms to renovate and expand Buford Middle Schools

  • The city and the Thomas Jefferson Planning District want your input on priorities for federal funds for housing 

  • The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative has announced a move to downtown Charlottesville

  • Charlottesville City Council does not appear willing to raise the real property tax rate for a second year in a row

For in-depth details and for stories that will remind everyone of some of what’s already happened, do sign-up for free. Please know a paid subscription will help keep me in business!

First shout-out: Rivanna Conservation Alliance

In today’s first Patreon-fueled shout-out, interested in helping a local organization keep our local river clean and protected? The Rivanna Conservation Alliance is holding an open house on Wednesday, February 15 at their offices on River Road in Charlottesville. Come by anytime between 4 and 7 p.m. to learn about their programs and the many ways you can get involved. Staff will be on hand to share information about monitoring, restoration, education, and stewardship activities. New and current volunteers are welcome! Light refreshments will be provided. Visit rivannariver.org to learn more. 

Person injured in early morning shooting on Harris Street

One person was injured last night in a shots fired incident on Harris Street in Charlottesville. Charlottesville Police were called to a report of a disturbance at Wicked Hits Smoke and Games shortly after midnight. 

“The call quickly escalated into a shooting,” reads a press release sent out this morning. “Upon arrival, officers secured the scene while detectives and evidence technicians responded.”

The release goes on to state that a male victim arrived soon after at the University of Virginia Medical Center with non-threatening gunshot wounds. 

For access to data on crime in Charlottesville, visit the Police Department’s website on the topic

Charlottesville seeks firms to bid on Buford Middle School expansion

After several years of talking about making changes to Charlottesville City Schools to add sixth grade to Buford Middle School, the city has issued an invitation for firms to bid to do the construction and demolition work required. (bid page)

“The project is the result of about ten years of speculation and study by the City Schools and it responds to a need to take out one of the middle-year transitions for students Charlottesville City Schools,” said Mike Goddard, a senior project manager with the City of Charlottesville’s Public Works Department. “The ultimate plan for the project is to make Buford a three-year school so sixth, seventh and eighth grade will ultimately go to Buford and the fifth grade will be pushed back to the elementaries.” 

The project is funded up to $80 million. A future project will be to turn Walker Upper Elementary into a pre-K facility. 

An overview of what the finished Buford Middle School renovation will look like (Credit: VMDO Architects) 

VMDO Architects and the city of Charlottesville have produced a 2,171 page document for contractors to peruse, not counting the drawings. 

Goddard said the project will feature an addition and a renovation.

“We plan to add a major volume to the existing Buford School while removing the gym building for that school,” Goddard said. 

The base plans do not envision replacing the theater building and that work will depend on how the bids come in. 

To be eligible, firms must have built at least two school projects of more than $30 million within the last five years. A second requirement is a demonstration that the contractor has experience working on a phased project on an occupied school site. 

A site plan meeting was held on January 4, 2023. 

Bids are due back by March 14. The RFP states that work is to commence on June 1 of this year and be substantially complete by July 1, 2026. 

If you have more questions about the site plan, take a look at the video on the city’s website. You may hear a familiar voice but I disclaim I did ask a question as a community member and not as a journalist. 

City and TJPDC seek respondents to fair housing survey 

There are many sources for funding for affordable housing projects and that includes the federal government. Locally, the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission and the City of Charlottesville operate something called the HOME Investment Partnership Consortium.

This is for something called the Consolidated Plan. Learn more on the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development website.

“This program provides annual entitlement funding through HUD for housing rehabilitation, down-payment assistance or new construction for qualifying households in the region,” reads the website for the partnership.

To help guide the program for a five-year period, Charlottesville and the TJPDC have issued a survey to determine what respondents consider the top priorities for funding. Anyone living or working in Charlottesville, Albemarle, Fluvanna, Greene, Louisa or Nelson is encouraged to fill it out by February 19. (take the survey

This is not to be confused with the draft allocations for a special amount of HOME funding that came through the American Rescue Plan Act, which is right next to the survey on the website. But you can take a look at a 33-page document that reads like a current state of affairs for responding to the needs of the unhoused and underhoused. Here’s a section.

“The inventory of housing for the homeless includes a day shelter, a high-barrier shelter for adult males and females with 63 beds, a low-barrier thermal shelter (24 beds) for 20 weeks per year, 92 units for medically-vulnerable adult males (most of which will not be available after April 2023), 35 units of housing with permanent supportive housing, 102 vouchers with supportive services, 52 hotel rooms, 25 shelter beds for victims of domestic violence, and 6 units of 4 transitional housing. Efforts are underway to develop another 80 units of supportive housing at the Premier Circle site by 2025, but only 22 vouchers have been secured to date.” 

The technical public comment period for the ARP funding ended on February 2. This segment has been updated to clarify the difference between the survey and the ARP funds.

One of the tables in the draft allocations (Credit: City of Charlottesville, TJPDC) 

Bridge PAI is moving to the Downtown Mall

A nonprofit group that for nearly 20 years has sought to create a better community through creativity and dialog will be moving from space in Belmont to a new location. The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative was founded in 2004. 

“With a mission and vision that pushes us into action, we are building The Underground: A Center for Creative Collaboration,” reads an email that was sent out to supporters Tuesday. “Opening in April 2023, this 4,300 square foot creative center is located on Charlottesville's Historic Downtown Mall.” 

The Bridge PAI is currently closed but used to be located on Monticello Road near the Belmont Bridge. The property it shared with Lampo Pizza sold for $800,000 last April to Lightning Properties, whose registered agent appears to be the owner and chef at Lampo. 

The Bridge unveiled a new website yesterday as well and mentions they’ve spent the last eight months strengthening their mission, vision, and path. The new space is part of that effort, and the new creative center is intended to have a co-working space, private studios, a computer lab, and more. 

“It is a space where artists can work in community with other creatives as they engage in painting, sculpture, digital art-making and everything in between,” the email continues. 

They’re also fundraising to help keep the space free for anyone who needs it. To learn more, visit the organization’s website at thebridgepai.org.

Last August, the Albemarle Economic Development Authority made a $5,000 match for a $25,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to the Bridge PAI for a project called Unsettling Grounds that will examine the Broadway Corridor.  

The new Underground is to be located at 306 East Main Street (Credit: The Bridge PAI)

Second shout-out goes to Camp Albemarle

Today’s second subscriber-supported public service announcement goes out to Camp Albemarle, which has for sixty years been a “wholesome rural, rustic and restful site for youth activities, church groups, civic events and occasional private programs.”

Located on 14 acres on the banks of the Moorman’s River near Free Union, Camp Albemarle continues as a legacy of being a Civilian Conservation Corps project that sought to promote the importance of rural activities. Camp Albemarle seeks support for a plan to winterize the Hamner Lodge, a structure built in 1941 by the CCC and used by every 4th and 5th grade student in Charlottesville and Albemarle for the study of ecology for over 20 years. If this campaign is successful, Camp Albemarle could operate year-round. Consider your support by visiting campalbemarleva.org/donate.

Council will likely not raise real property tax rate for next budget cycle 

Fiscal New Year is only 114 days away and Charlottesville City Council will meet tonight with the Charlottesville School Board at CATEC at 5 p.m. for a work session on the budget that will kick in on July 1. 

Last week, Council held a work session to give its priorities for the creation of a budget including the setting of a tax rate. They also heard from interim City Manager Michael C. Rogers on budget guidelines including one that’s been in place for some years. (view the meeting) (view the presentation)

“We continue the strong commitment to education by allocating up to 40 percent of new city real estate and property tax revenues to schools,” Rogers said. “Now, this is a policy, this is a guideline. This is not written in stone except through the adoption of the budget.” 

One of the main items in the presentation Superintendent Royal Gurley made to the School Board last week was a push to get Council to stick to the policy for this year. The increase in real property assessments as well as projections for other taxes will mean new revenue. 

“Between the assessments and increase in other key other revenue areas like lodging and hotel taxes, we have a $13.9 million increase,” Rogers said. 

The school system’s share of those new revenues would be $4.2 million. 

The adopted FY23 budget is at around $212.9 million. The anticipated additional revenue would bring that to $226.7 million if the tax rates are kept the same. But let’s focus first on the amount that comes from the assessment increase.

“That accounts for $9.9 million of that $13.9 million,” said Krisy Hammill, the city’s director of budget and performance. 

One of several slides from the presentation from the February 2, 2023 City Council work session (download the presentation)

Some other projected changes: 

  • Albemarle’s payment to Charlottesville for the revenue-sharing agreement will increase by $170,513 to a total of $15,715,740. 

  • Fees from building permits are projected to bring in $381,000 less in FY24 for a total of $949,000. 

  • Revenue from EMS billing is projected to decrease by $135,000 to $765,000 for FY24

But back to that $13.9 million. First, Hammill subtracted the $4.2 million for schools, and shared another $3.3 million in known new expenses such as paying for new city positions that were initially funded by one-time money, as well as pay increases for bus drivers for both the school system and Charlottesville Area Transit. 

“People may think that you’ve $13.9 million, but $8.8 million is already gone but the remaining amount, the $5.5 million, is the margin that we’re dealing with,” Rogers said. 

And that’s before factoring in anticipated increases in salaries for city staff. A four percent merit increase would cost $2.4 million. That does not factor in what might come out of the compensation study that will be published later this month. Nor does it take into account collective bargaining. 

Retirees would get a two percent cost of living increase for a total of $1 million. The city’s cost to cover increases in health care is $277,905 with no increase expected for employees. That’s a total of $3.7 million.

Staff has also added $200,000 to the Vibrant Community Fund based on feedback from Council at a December work session. (Council discusses additional funding for Vibrant Community Fund, December 31, 2022)

Rogers ended the presentation with a question to Council. 

“So the question is, what else is on Council’s mind?” Rogers asked. 

One of several slides from the presentation from the February 2, 2023 City Council work session (download the presentation)

Councilor Brian Pinkston said he would be willing to tweak the school formula to provide more funding for general government. 

“For me, that is not something that is sacrosanct,” Pinkston said. “We are investing in our schools to the tune of $80 million and if you include the escalation, we are making a major contribution to get our schools to the place that they need to be.” 

For instance, Pinkston said the funding could help increase the amount available for housing initiatives. The Affordable Housing Plan adopted in March 2021 commits the city to invest $10 million each year in housing, including administration. All of the city’s housing initiatives are now running through the Office of Community Solutions. Deputy City Manager Sam Sanders said even if there is more funding available, it won’t meet the level of requests that have been submitted this year.

“Every housing pot that we have is oversubscribed,” Sanders said. “I think we received three times as many applications, the amount exceeded three times of what we have available.” 

For instance, there are 10 applications for “Housing Development Project Investments” for a total request of $33,364,535 million. Eight of them come from the Piedmont Housing Alliance. (Charlottesville seeks proposals for affordable housing fund, January 4, 2023)

The city has not had a housing program manager since the summer of 2020 when John Sales left the position after one year to run the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. 

Councilor Michael Payne noted that the inclusionary zoning provisions anticipated in the new zoning code and said that staff will need to be in place to monitor the situation. 

“However we structure it, that means that for every large new development, if it’s successful, the city will need a process to verify that the developer is actually following through on that commitment and then no one ever checks,” Payne said. 

Here’s a reminder that the city has previously lost track of how the existing Charlottesville Affordable Housing Fund has been used since it was created in 2007. There was a review last year. (Deputy City Manager Sanders reviews recent audit of Charlottesville’s housing fund, April 6, 2022)

Payne also put in a plug for at least $50 million in investment in public housing projects operated by the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority. 

“I think it’s important for the city now to begin planning for the Westhaven phase of public housing redevelopment,” Payne said. “I know that’s not for this immediate fiscal year or even the one following that but I think the scale of that project I think we really need to begin planning out how we’re going to afford it now.” 

The first occupants have moved into new CRHA units at South First Street, according to a report given to the Board of Commissioners in January. Renovations at Crescent Halls are also nearing completion. The organization also spent nearly a million to buy three properties in 2022 to serve as sites for subsidized housing.

Pinkston said he would like to see funding to pay for a study of what the city would need for a permanent shelter for the unhoused. 

“I think that we need to get really serious about a shelter for the unhoused that’s one that we can really count on and that we’ve got access that meets the community’s needs,” Pinkston said. “I’m not saying we need to budget a million dollars for it next year but I really think that we need to make some investments in planning for that so that we’re not just continuing to chase that topic.” 

Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade said that he wants the city to able to address what he said was an increase level of gun violence in the community. He referred to the murder of Eldridge Vandrew Smith on January 28, 2023 on Grove Street.

“The last shooting was particularly close because it was a young man that I knew very well so I think that more and more people are starting to feel like it’s not safe,” Wade said. 

The next major decision for this cycle is to determine what tax rate to advertise for the public hearing on March 20. 

Last year, they agreed to advertise a ten cent increase on the real property rate but settled on a one cent increase. Under Virginia law, a locality must advertise the highest maximum rate it may consider for the budget 30 days before the public hearing, but that does not compel that rate to actually be adopted. 

Every penny increase on the tax rate would yield an additional $1,035,452 in new revenue. Again, 40 percent would go to the schools. 

Where do Councilors currently stand?

“I’m in the camp right now that I wouldn’t want to see any increase at all,” said Vice Mayor Juandiego Wade. “I think that the increase in assessment has been hard on a lot of property owners and I wouldn’t want to see any increase.”

Payne said he felt advertising a higher rate of one or two cents would give Council more flexibility. 

“I’m a little bit more in favor of publishing something, or advertising something, so we can at least discuss even if our preference is not to increase anything,” Payne said. 

Payne said he would favor increasing the lodging tax over the real property tax rate. The rate is currently at eight percent of the total bill, according to the city’s website.  A potential change in that rate does not need to be advertised 30 days before the first public hearing. Only seven.

Payne also hinted that the city could increase the property tax rate as long as there is funding to provide relief to those who qualify. Commissioner of Revenue Todd Divers cautioned against using that tactic.

“I don’t think you can ever relief your way out of an assessment increase or a rate increase in Virginia,” Divers said. 

More on that theoretical exercise another day and perhaps in another budget cycle. For now, we still have this one to get through. 

Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook voted against the one cent property tax rate increase last year and would not be willing to further it this time around.

“I’m feeling at this point that we will have had basically had back to back 12 to 13 percent increases, effectively 25 percent over two years that the logic is basically the same for me that I don’t think that we should be raising the taxes,” Snook said. 

Pinkston said he also was not supportive of increasing the real estate tax rate this year. 

“Last year it felt like to me that I could justify doing it because we had this whole school thing hanging over our heads,” Pinkston said. “Now even though there’s lots of needs, I do feel like the budget that we’re seeing is a responsive budget, it’s a thoughtful budget. 

Pinkston then sought his colleagues on the formula for schools. Snook explained why he supported keeping it in place. 

“We know that the largest percentage of the schools budget is personnel,” Snook said. “In other words, teachers. We know that teachers are not overpaid. If anything, they’re overpaid. And we also know that they’ve just approved, or are moving toward approving, collective bargaining. It would not be wise, I think, to assume that in this year of all years as they are about to move into collective bargaining that we’re somehow going to be able to convince them to find a way to economize on teacher salaries.” 

Payne agreed with Snook that this was not the year to change the formula, particularly regarding a consequence of the repeal of the grocery tax that did not find replacement funding for revenues lost at the state level. 

Stay tuned for more details on the budget here on Charlottesville Community Engagement

Reading material:

Housekeeping for #496

Thank you to Valerie L’Herrou for voicework today. The podcast version often features the sounds of someone other than me reading from press releases and other documents. So far that’s a volunteer gig, you get a shout-out. Valerie wants you to know about the Virginia Poverty Law Center, protecting the rights of low-income Virginians. 

For some reason, I wrote most of this episode last night at a place outside where I usually produce these things. I wanted to make sure my write-up on the budget discussion was out before tomorrow’s joint work session between Council and the School Board. I hope that what I write conveys enough about these conversations to give you enough of the relevant information. That’s the purpose of all of this. 

But here we are at the end of another installment and as soon as I’m done, it will be time to write the next one. This is all possible because of paid subscribers through Substack. Thanks to all of those, and for all those who will subscribe in the future. When you do, Ting will match your initial payment. That helps me keep on track to keep writing and explaining as much as I can about things that I feel more people should understand.

Ting also wants to help with your highspeed Internet needs. 

If you sign up at this link and enter the promo code COMMUNITY, you’ll get:

  • Free installation

  • A second month for free

  • A $75 gift card to the Downtown Mall

I’m late on getting this out, so there’s not enough time to thank Wraki for the music and the Fundamental Grang for not technically existing.