November 22, 2021: Albemarle PC briefed on capital budget process; Another new owner for the Daily Progress?
Plus, the Cavalier Daily reports on potential UVA tuition increase
It doesn’t seem at this moment like a holiday week, with so many items happening at public meetings before Thanksgiving. But, I’m grateful you are listening to this installment of Charlottesville Community Engagement, and I’m hopeful that you’ll share it with others.
Most people read the newsletter, but the secret is that each one is produced for audio, as my professional career in journalism began in radio. More than a quarter-century later, I’m glad to be bringing you information as often as I can and this is what I have for November 22, 2021.
Let’s begin today with a Patreon-fueled shout-out!
WTJU is hosting Classical Listening Parties, a series of four free, casual events on Tuesdays in November. These four events are led by Chelsea Holt, pianist, teacher, and one of WTJU’s newest and youngest classical announcers. She’ll guide you through all the eras of classical music and tomorrow night at 7 p.m.: the Romantic period. For a list of the others, visit wtju.net to learn more and sign up!
On today’s show:
Albemarle’s Planning Commission gets an update on the county’s capital improvement budget for the next fiscal year
A hedge fund sets its sights on the Daily Progress and its parent company
The EPA seeks to reestablish jurisdiction in the Waters of the United States
And the University of Virginia seeks a tuition increase for undergraduates
As the week begins, the seven-day average for new COVID cases is at 1,644 new cases a day and the percent positivity is at 5.9 percent. The Blue Ridge Health District reports another 29 new cases today and a percent positivity of 5.5 percent. Three more fatalities have been reported since Friday for a total of 311 since the pandemic began.
A fire in an apartment in the 1200 block of Carlton Avenue in the Belmont neighborhood on Sunday has killed one person, according to a release from the Charlottesville Fire Department. Crews began fighting the fire soon after arriving and then looked for anyone trapped. One adult was rescued but died soon after being taken to an unidentified hospital. Fire marshals are investigating the cause. This is the third fatality from a fire this year.
Newspaper consolidation continues
The Charlottesville Daily Progress and most other daily newspapers in Virginia might soon have a new owner. Alden Global Capital has announced in a letter that it will pay $24 a share for Lee Enterprises, thirty percent over the Friday’s closing stock price.
“We believe that as a private company and part of our successful nationwide platforms, Lee would be in a stronger position to maximize its resources and realize strategic value that enhances its operations and supports its employees in their important work serving local communities,” reads the letter.
Alden Global Capital is a New York based hedge fund that owns the Tribune Publishing Company and Media NewsGroup. Among their newspapers are the Chicago Tribune, the Denver Post, the Mercury News, and the New York Daily News. The company already owns six percent of Lee Enterprises.
“Scale is critical for newspapers to ensure necessary staffing and in order to thrive in this challenging environment where print advertising continues to decline and back office operations and legacy public company functions remain bloated, thus depriving newsrooms of resources that are best used serving readers with relevant, trustworthy, and engaging content,” the letter continues.
Lee Enterprises completed the purchase of the Daily Progress from BHMedia in March 2020. BHMedia is a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway, which purchased the Progress from Media General in May 2012. Media General purchased the paper from Thomas Worrell Jr. in 1995 as part of a $230 million deal. The Progress was first published on September 14, 1892.
Other Virginia papers owned by Lee Enterprises include the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Lynchburg News Advance, and the Roanoke Times.
The real question is - who gets the Daily Progress March? In April 2005, the Charlottesville Municipal Band unveiled a tune written by Nellysford composer Paul T. Richards. Check out my news story from that time!
Crozet school redistricting
An Albemarle committee appointed to study scenarios to alleviate overpopulation of elementary schools in the western part of the county has unveiled their recommendation. After meeting four times and holding two public comment sessions, the Crozet-Brownsville Redistricting Committee has suggested a total of 219 students be moved from Brownsville to Crozet Elementary at the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year. By then, Albemarle should have completed a $21.25 million addition to that school which includes 16 new classrooms. (committee website)
Water quality rules
Two federal agencies that regulate land use as it relates to water quality have announced plans to reinstate a more robust definition of what constitutes the “waters of the United States.” Both the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers use that phrase as a basis for enforcement of the Clean Water Act of 1972 which among other things regulates industrial discharges into “navigable waters.”
A rule change made in the previous presidential administration reduced the geographic scope of the definition, potentially limiting the jurisdiction of the EPA and the Army Corp’s reach.
The Southern Environmental Law Center and other conservation groups sued to overturn the rule.
“The prior administration stripped protections under the Clean Water Act from countless streams, lakes and wetlands, leaving thousands of stream miles, many public recreational lakes, and millions of acres of wetlands without protections that have been in place for decades through every other administration and putting our communities and water supplies at risk,” reads a statement issued last week.
The SELC argues that preserving wetlands can help preserve the ability of communities to reduce flooding and deal with extreme weather events. To learn more, visit the EPA’s Waters of the United States website.
The Cavalier Daily reports that tuition at the University of Virginia could increase between 3.5 percent and 4.9 percent in the each of the next two academic years. That’s according to two representatives from the UVA Finance office who spoke to Student Council last week. Public comment will be taken at a forum on December 2 followed by a vote by the Board of Visitors at their meeting a week later.
Tuition was frozen for the current academic year.
For a sense of scale, the current tuition for most undergraduate student in the College of Arts and Sciences is $14,188 for a Virginia resident and $48,036 for an out-of-state resident. Third-year students pay slightly higher. First-year engineering students from Virginia pay $22,566 for a year’s tuition, with non-Virginians paying $56,730. These figures don’t include fees. Take a look at the UVA website to learn more about how much students are charged for their education. To learn more about the proposed increase, read Eileen Powell’s article in the Cavalier Daily.
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Let’s have two more Patreon-fueled shout-outs. The first comes a long-time supporter who wants you to know:
"Today is a great day to spread good cheer: reach out to an old friend, compliment a stranger, or pause for a moment of gratitude to savor a delight."
The second comes from a more recent supporter who wants you to go out and read a local news story written by a local journalist. Whether it be the Daily Progress, Charlottesville Tomorrow, C-Ville Weekly, NBC29, CBS19, WINA, or some other place I’ve not mentioned - the community depends on a network of people writing about the community. Go learn about this place today!
Albemarle Planning Commission’s capital budget briefing
Tomorrow afternoon at 2 p.m., an advisory committee appointed to help Albemarle County shape its capital improvement program budget for the next fiscal year will hold its first meeting. Last week, the seven-member Planning Commission got an overview including a reminder that last year was very different. (watch the meeting)
“Last year when we were putting together the FY22 budget, there was no [capital improvement program],” said Andy Bowman, the chief of budget in the Finance and Budget office. “The county was in the middle of the pandemic and there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty and really at that time it was decided instead of focusing on a long-range picture, to focus on the impacts of the pandemic and what might be able to be unpaused from a number of projects that were paused at the start of the pandemic.”
Bowman said the economy has rebounded much better than initially anticipated with outlooks becoming more favorable with each passing month. As the FY23 budget approaches, Bowman said the county is not immune to inflationary pressure, with bids for some capital projects coming in higher than budgeted. The process starts with a review of what’s currently in the works.
“We have a capital program currently underway, before we even start anything from 2023 to 2027, of around $147 million for about 65 projects,” Bowman said. “Of that $147 million, $91 million has been appropriated in the last eleven months now, from what was unpaused in January which included the expansion at Crozet Elementary.”
Bowman noted that over the course of the next five years, the county will adopt a new Comprehensive Plan and the Board of Supervisors will update their strategic plan. Both documents as well as the School Board’s strategic plan will guide future decisions on capital spending. Bowman said the focus this cycle will be on the immediate year to give flexibility on future needs.
The CIP advisory committee consists of Supervisors Bea LaPisto-Kirtley and Donna Price, School Board members Kate Acuff and Jonno Alcaro, and former Planning Commissioners Bruce Dotson.and Cal Morris.
“They’re charged to do a few things,” Bowman said. “First they will review and evaluate a proposal that is recommended by staff as a starting point and then the CIP committee will sort of make a recommendation and modify that starting point.”
Bowman said there will be additional revenue from the cigarette tax and potential revenue from a tax on plastic bags. The county also refinanced its debt earlier this year.
“Given the current market we were able to issue a large amount of [borrowed proceeds] at low interest rates and that will create some capacity that didn’t exist in the prior plan prior to the pandemic,” Bowman said
Bowman said staff is also reviewing through the details of the American Rescue Plan Act to see how that funds can be used to leverage local dollars capital spending. In August, Supervisors used $4.5 million in federal COVID-relief funds for broadband expansion.
One of the biggest items in the capital improvement program is the need for school maintenance and expansion. Rosalyn Schmitt is the chief operating officer of Albemarle County Public Schools. She briefed the Planning Commission on the school’s strategic plan.
“Getting the right resources to educators and students for their teaching and learning is key to our success,” Schmitt said
The school system has a Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee and their most recent recommendations were published on September 9, 2021. The eleven projects have a cumulative cost estimate of $196 million, with most of the projects containing either word “renovations” or “capacity.”
“Adequate capacity continues to be a need for the school division,” Schmitt said. “This is supported by the ten-year enrollment projections and reinforced by both the recently completed development and student yield analysis, and a thirty-year population forecast.”
One item is $40 million for another elementary school in the northern feeder pattern and another would be to purchase land for the western feeder pattern.
“As these schools all reach a saturation point where expansion is no longer practical, we recommend a strategy for land acquisition and the construction of new facilities,” Schmitt said. “I think for the first time in a long time you’ll see several new schools on this list.”
There’s also a recommendation to improve air quality within schools. There is a possibility that federal ARPA funding could be used for that purpose.
“That is a comprehensive program around mechanical improvements that there is some opportunity to have some matching funds from ARPA funding that we are pursuing,” Schmitt said.
Luis Carrazana is the associate architect of the University of Virginia and a non-voting member of the Albemarle Planning Commission. He noted that the recent adoption of the Crozet Master Plan update called for capital infrastructure, as did the relatively recent update of the Pantops Master Plan and adoption of the Rio Small Area Plan.
“And so I’m wondering how we’re looking at those approved master plans with the CIP and putting the same rigor as we seem to be doing with the School Board,” Carrazana said.
Planning Director Charles Rapp said implementation of many projects in the master plans are dependent on lining up ideas with funding opportunities.
“A lot of those infrastructure related improvements, we identify them in these master plans or small area plans or corridor studies and that’s often the first phase of identifying a project,” Rapp said.
The next day, Bowman gave a similar presentation to the Board of Supervisors. This one has more specifics about the developing budget. (watch the presentation)
Supervisors were reminded that there is a significant “positive variance” from the FY21 budget of more than $13 million that can be used for one-time money.
“We are proposing, not really for discussion today but this will come back on December 15, to invest some of the one-time fiscal year 21 funding into the economic development fund,” Bowman said.
At their December 15 meeting, the Board will also be asked for direction on whether to explore tax relief programs. They’ll also be given a review of what additional revenue sources could be pursued in Richmond.
The Board of Supervisors will have a work session on December 1 related to the way the FY23 budget will be developed. Another change this year is the December release of Albemarle’s property assessments for 2022. That will be presented to the Board of Supervisors on December 15, a month earlier than usual.
See also: Albemarle may close FY21 with $13.2M in one-time money, November 9, 2021
Unsolicited fact of the day
Finally today, sometimes there are pieces of information I come across during my reporting, or facts that people tell me that don’t quite make their way into a news story. These facts are not entirely random, but they may seem that way.
First up, the commercial portions of the Stonefield development have paid a total of $841,955 in connection fees to the Albemarle County Service Authority for water and sewer between 2012 and 2020. That’s according to information provided to me by Gary O’Connell, the director of the ACSA.
That figure does not include residential connections. Before anyone can connect to water and sewer in Albemarle, they have to pay a hefty connection fee. For instance, for one commercial unit on Bond Street to connect in 2021, they had to pay $14,280 for water and $13,505 for sewer. Both of these fees include a portion paid to the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority to cover the cost of capital projects to expand capacity.
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