Bell's $2.6 million amendment fails

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 Contentious words were exchanged. A lobbyist was hired. A City Council resolution was passed. And in the end, Charlottesville Mayor Dave Norris liked the outcome.

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Charlottesville and Albemarle are locked in a battle over $2.6 million in school funding. Who will come to the breaking point first?

The General Assembly thwarted Delegate Rob Bell’s attempt to move roughly $2.6 million from Charlottesville schools to Albemarle County’s school coffers. The state legislature did not include Bell’s proposed amendment in its final budget, which was passed March 14.

“Maybe some people didn’t expect us to fight this amendment as hard as we did,” Norris said, “but we knew this was going to result in a major hit to our schools, so we spent a lot of money and staff’s time and energy lobbying the General Assembly to defeat it, and they made the right choice.”

County officials see it differently. Since 2007, they have created amendments trying to convince the state legislature that Virginia’s school funding formula shortchanges Albemarle schools because it doesn’t factor in the city-county revenue-sharing agreement. If the formula counted the agreement, Albemarle would annually receive more state education dollars.

This year, the House of Delegates included the school funding amendment in its version of the budget, which Albemarle School Board Chairman Ron Price said was a “surprise.” Price also said that the county School Board will work with Bell to propose a similar amendment next year.

But with the debate that Bell’s latest failed amendment ignited, why risk another round of regional infighting?

Mayor Dave Norris said the city “spent a lot of money and staff’s time and energy lobbying the General Assembly” to defeat Delegate Rob Bell’s budget amendment.

Price holds steadfast to the view that this is an issue of basic fairness: The county pays 10 cents for every dollar of real estate property tax to the city each year—a total of $18 million in the current budget cycle—and the state should count that transaction when deciding how many education dollars to dole out to each locality.

“It’s up to the School Board to make sure the revenue from the state is being calculated correctly,” Price said, “and we’ve been aiming our comments completely at the [school funding formula.] Maybe the City Council and the Board of Supervisors would want to debate the revenue-sharing agreement, but that agreement is binding and permanent. I don’t see that changing.”

Talk surrounding the revenue-sharing agreement has been galvanized by Bell’s amendment. Conversation has centered on how the city and county can share costs amid a challenging budgetary climate, and school consolidation has been offered up as an idea. 

Delegate David Toscano is aiming to organize that talk in an April 24 meeting with school board members, city councilors and county supervisors. Both Norris and Supervisor Ken Boyd see the meeting as a chance to brainstorm ways the city’s revenue-sharing funds—$18 million this year—can be used to benefit both the city and county.

As for how the two localities should use the funds, Boyd suggested investing a slice of the revenue-sharing dollars into Albemarle’s Acquisition of Conservation Easements (ACE) program, which allows the county to purchase development rights from rural landowners in order to keep that land undeveloped.

“A year ago, when we said we would have to cut back on ACE, we were getting a lot of e-mails,” Boyd said, “and a majority was coming from city residents.”

Norris, meanwhile, talked about how the city and county could share services within Albemarle’s urban ring, the more developed area bordering Charlottesville. To help the county cut costs, he suggested having the city fire department serve the urban ring and have county volunteers cover more rural parts of Albemarle. He also proposed that city police could cover the urban ring and relieve the county of those costs.

While Toscano’s meeting could be a constructive way to air such ideas, Boyd made sure to temper the starry-eyed notion that the meeting would solve all city-county problems.

“It’s an awful lot of people to put in a room at the same time and expect to come out with too much of an outcome,” he said. 

Boyd will likely attend the meeting, “unless something in my campaign for Congress precludes me from being there,” he said. “That’s a major priority of mine right now.” Boyd is running for the GOP nomination to unseat Democratic incumbent Tom Perriello, and Toscano’s April 24 meeting falls on the day of the Dogwood Parade, a prime meet-and-greet chance. Price and Norris plan to be at the meeting.

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