Jan 22, 2021 • 15M

January 22, 2021: Albemarle's economic outlook; Charlottesville's public housing budget; VDOT expanding Monarch habitat

 
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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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On this edition:

  • Albemarle Supervisors get an update on assessments and economic indicators 

  • The Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority holds its first work session of the year

  • More information about Smart Scale projects

  • And the Virginia Department of Transportation briefs officials on a program to create more habitat for monarch butterflies

*

The shape of Albemarle County’s budget for fiscal year became a little more clear with the announcement that property values are up at an average of 1.4 percent according to assessor Peter Lynch. 

“Out of all of the properties in Albemarle County, we review twenty percent each year so we try to cover over a five-year period all of the properties to make sure our data is up to date,” Lynch said. 

Part of the work of the Office of the Assessor is to validate properties that qualify for tax breaks due to agricultural use. Some properties convert to different uses, and when they do, the owners have to pay what they would have been charged under the new use for the past five years in what is known as a roll-back tax. This year, the assessor’s office was more productive in this area than in usual times. 

“We worked 135 roll-backs for more than $975,00 in rollback, in tax dollars,” Lynch said. “In an average year, we would do 38 rollbacks so this is a huge improvement over that.” 

The pandemic affected the overall assessment for 2021. 

“The properties that were affected the most by the economic impacts of the COVID situation that we’re going through were hotels and shopping centers,” Lynch said. “And it’s reflected in their values. Those properties were in excess of twenty percent decreases on average for that property class.” 

Lynch said hotels in Albemarle usually have an occupancy rate of 60 to 70 percent, but that number has been in the 20 to 30 percent range for much of the pandemic. He said office properties were also affected, but not to the same extent. For more details on this topic including a further breakdown in the numbers, go read Allison Wrabel’s story in the Daily Progress

After the assessment discussion, Supervisors got an update on the county’s financial outlook. Steve Allshouse is with the county’s Department of Community Development

“Economic forecasting in this era is very difficult mainly because last time we had a pandemic in the United States was in 1918 but at that time economic data was not being kept very carefully or was not in existence so economists today are being challenged by doing forecasting without really having a good historical context to look at,’ Allshouse said. 

However, the forecast for Fiscal Year 22 is built off recent data, such as those assessment numbers we just heard about. Allshouse predicted a “bumpy” road ahead.

“The reason I say bumpy is that you’ll see lots of good news mixed with lots of bad news and that’s typical when we’re looking at recoveries so please expect that if you hear something negative in the media about the economy locally, you’re likely to hear things that are positive.” 

Overall, the unemployment rate in Albemarle was 3.6% in November 2019. In April 2020, that jumped to 9 percent. 

In Albemarle, in the past year there has been a 44 percent decline in the number of people employed in the food service and hospitality industry, or about 1,950 jobs lost. The arts, entertainment and recreation industry lost 962 jobs, and retail lost 712 jobs. Some sectors actually gained positions over the study period. 

“Between the two period, spring of 2019 and spring of 2020, what we saw in construction was an increase of about 4 percent, or 98 jobs,” Allshouse said. “And also in the finance and insurance sector we saw a modest increase of about 1.2 percent or a total of about 12 jobs.” 

Allshouse estimated that about 40 percent of the jobs initially lost have returned as the shutdown lifted, and he projects that at least 60 percent will come back by the end of this calendar year.

“That’s not a full recovery by the end of the first half of the next fiscal year but I do believe that we will see eventually the total number of jobs come back to where they were pre-pandemic but that’s going to take a while,” Allshouse said. “This is going to be a very slow process in my estimation.”

If the pandemic recedes, the tourism industry is one area that could come back quickly. However, adaptations to social distancing may have long-term effects on business travel. 

“My concern is that some of what takes place in the motel and hotel industry reflects activity that is dependent on business travel and I think that is going to take a longer time to come back mainly because I think businesses have gotten used to having remote meetings,” Allshouse said. 

County Executive Jeff Richardson will present a budget later sometime toward the end of February. It will be the first budget prepared under Nelsie Birch, who became Albemarle’s chief financial officer. 

“We’re taking that information that Mr. Lynch, the county assessor, has provided, and Mr. Allshouse, and building that into our framework for what you all will be undertaking for the next few months,” Birch said.

Source: Albemarle County

This being budget season, the Board of Commissioners for the Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority are also getting ready for the next fiscal year. Their budget is being prepared with assistance from consultant Hayley Fetrow of HSF Consulting. Fetrow briefed the CHRA Board at a work session on Wednesday. (watch the work session)

“The goal of today is to provide you with an overview of the budgeting process,” Fetrow said. “And this year, interestingly, we have some new revenue lines that we’re getting additional levels of funding that we can talk a little bit about.” 

In addition to being a consultant, Fetrow is the director of a public housing authority in Medway, Massachusetts. Her firm specializes in helping financially troubled housing authorities. 

“We usually come in, help them reorganize, restructure, and really put best practices in place and the goal for us is provide a sustainable model for housing authorities going forward,”Fetrow said. “I think at Charlottesville we’ve had a varying opportunity to kind of help out in the finance department and it’s been exciting to have new staff come on in the last year with Mr. Sales.”

Mr. Sales is John Sales, who became the new executive director at CRHA last August. He had previously served as the city’s housing coordinator. One outcome of better recordkeeping has been the receipt of federal CARES funding to help tenants catch up rent due to lost wages, among other things.

One new line item in the budget will be a column that lists revenue from Charlottesville and other sources for redevelopment efforts.

“We can start to put these things down in writing and be clear about where we anticipate getting support from the city and other sources and how we anticipate spending them,” Fetrow said. 

Commissioners were taken through a full look at the details of the budget, and new systems that are being put in place to better manage the accounts. This is one way the agency might one day move on from troubled status.

“Charlottesville is really going to evolve in the next year or two with respect to budgeting and operations and how you manage this,” Fetrow said. 

A next step is to present the budget information to the public in community meetings. The draft budget should be available for review next week. Here’s John Sales. 

“Our first meeting is going to be on February 10,” sales said. One is at 4 p.m. and one is at 6 p.m. And then we have the Board work session which will be on the CFP budget on February 11 at p.m. And then we’re hoping to get Board approval on March 9.”

Source: City of Charlottesville

*

The Smart Scale funding process has recommended nine out of ten transportation projects in Albemarle County submitted in the latest round. The Commonwealth Transportation Board will consider the projects this spring and will take a final vote in June. 

“The total amount of Smart Scale funds that would come to Albemarle from these projects is just over $60 million,” said Albemarle transportation planner Kevin McDermott sent in an email to the Board of Supervisors. 

Smart Scale is a process where projects submitted by localities and planning districts are ranked according to how they provide a series of desired outcomes. VDOT staff matches higher-ranked projects with funding sources. However, funding for the projects will not come for a few years, allowing time for the projects to be designed. 

“The projects are not just a benefit for private vehicular transportation but also represent a park and ride lot with potential to be served by regional transit, two projects that are solely bicycle and pedestrian improvements, and the inclusion of a bicycle and pedestrian element within every project recommended for funding.

Another high-scoring project is $50 million to increase passenger rail along the Interstate 81 and U.S. 29 corridors. 

Here are the projects recommended for funding:

  • $5.73 million in funding for a $24 million project to make improvements around the intersection of U.S. 29 and Hydraulic Road. The rest of the funding is leftover from projects completed on U.S. 29 over the past few years.

  • $3.94 million for a $5.9 million for Route 250 East Corridor Improvements

  • $5.2 million for a $7.26 million for improvements at intersection of Old Lynchburg Road and 5th Street Extended 

  • $8.7 million for the total cost of improvements to address safety concerns on Ridge Street

  • $8.126 million for a $10.126 million roundabout at intersection of John Warner Parkway and East Rio Road 

  • $10.874 million for the total cost of Phase 3 of the West Main Streetscape between 8th Street NW to Roosevelt Brown Boulevard

  • $7.743 million for the total cost of intersection improvements at Preston Avenue and Grady Avenue

  • $3.38 million for the total cost of a park and ride lot at Exit 107 on Interstate 64

  • $3.524 million for the total cost of a shared-use path on U.S. 29 from Carrsbrook to Seminole Lane

  • $9.841 million for a project to build a trailhead and trails near 5th Street Station

  • $12.374 million for improvements at the U.S. 29 and Fontaine Avenue interchange

  • $9.2 million for a roundabout in Fluvanna County at Troy Road and Route 250

  • $7.762 million for a roundabout at Route 231 and High Street in Gordonsville

  • $20.465 million for the second phase of multimodal improvements on Emmet Street

One project in Charlottesville that did not get recommended for funding is a $34.3 million project to extend Hillsdale Drive south to a new interchange at the U.S. 250 bypass. A project to remove a traffic light at U.S. 29 and Fray’s Mill Road also did not make the cut. Two intersection projects in Louisa County also did not get recommended, as well as a roundabout at Route 53 and Turkeysag Trail in Fluvanna. 

*

The Virginia Department of Transportation is participating in a program that seeks to help provide a safer journey for winged creatures that majestically migrate across the Commonwealth. Angel Deem is the director of VDOT’s environmental division and she spoke before the Commonwealth Transportation Board on January 19. 

“So I’m happy to present to the Board today an overview of what’s termed the Monarch Butterfly Candidate Conversation Agreement with Assurances,” Deem said. “That’s a long title and its shortened up to CCAA.”

CCAA is a program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that works with other government agencies to conserve land for at-risk species, such as the Monarch butterfly. Deem said the goal is to conserve millions of acres of land across the nation that are currently being used by state highway agencies and land used to produce energy. Another specific goal is to plant milkweed on 2.3 million acres. 

Last December, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services updated the endangered species list, and the Monarch is listed as “warranted but precluded.” Deem explains. 

“What they mean by precluded is that there are other priority listings ahead of this one so they are essentially going to put it on hold if you will and continue to monitor its progress,” Deem said. 

Progress would be made if existing habitats aren’t threatened to be converted to some other uses. The use of pesticides and mowing of state right of way are other threats. 

“Those things are impacting the available foraging and breeding habitat for the Monarch,” Deem said. 

Under the CCAA, VDOT would agree to taking several conservation measures. 

“We would do some specific seeding and planting and brush removal to encourage suitable habitat for the Monarch,” Deem said. “We would also participate in what’s called conservation mowing, allowing food sources to be available to develop for the Monarch as well as breeding sites.”

VDOT entered into the agreement last November and the goal in the first year will be to apply the measures to 1,567 acres. Deem said VDOT has already achieved that goal and is now making progress towards the five year goal of doubling that amount. For more information on the program, watch the entire presentation on YouTube. (view the slides)