County sees turnaround on capital expansion

A county map showing the old and planned new locations of the Northside Library. Photo: Albemarle County. A county map showing the old and planned new locations of the Northside Library. Photo: Albemarle County.

When the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors voted last week to push ahead with a plan to spend $11.8 million to turn an old building supply warehouse into the new home of the Northside Library, it added to a growing list of capital projects planned in the county for the next five to 10 years.

A $37 million plan to relocate part of the county’s court system; a $1.1 million police firing range; the $2.1 million renovations to the Ivy Fire Station: While it might not constitute a building boom, exactly, it does signal a return to infrastructure investment some say is long overdue.

“It’s absolutely going up, and by necessity,” said Supervisor Ann Mallek. “There’s a huge majority in this county who say one of our biggest faults is that we let the growth come, and then 20 years later we deal with it.”

The size of the county’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP)—adopted or amended on a yearly basis and meant to be a long-term estimate of building and maintenance needs—contracted significantly after fiscal year 2010, shrinking from $138.8 million to just under $60 million. But that number has been creeping up. The CIP for FY 2014, which the Board voted to implement earlier this month, is north of $107 million.

Republican Supervisor Ken Boyd, a consistent pro-development voter during his tenure on the Board, said the earlier slowdown was a necessary side effect of a seriously ill economy.

“We decided to draw back a little, and I don’t think we’re worse off for it,” he said. “I disagree with that concept that we should spend money we don’t have just because it’s a good deal.”

Mallek said that kind of thinking has held the county back in recent years when it should have been planning for the future. “The reason we haven’t gotten anywhere is that there are a few people who only vote the short message,” she said. “That’s irresponsible. These are things it’s stupid to ignore.”

She said the county should have been steering more tax revenue to capital projects during the recession, making down payments on new projects at a time when it was cheaper than ever to borrow money.

“Other cities went for it, because they knew it was going to save them in the long run,” she said. “We were just too short-sighted, because all we were looking at was the tax rate.”

In that view, the Democrat has a somewhat unusual ally: Neil Williamson, president and executive director of the Free Enterprise Forum, a pro-business nonprofit that tracks local government policy.

Williamson said projects can’t be “Taj Mahals,” and he takes issue with what he thinks were unnecessary overages in the Crozet Library construction. But in general, he said, the county has to recognize that capital spending is a core function of government, and that foot-dragging on much-needed projects and failing to build capital expenditures into the budget only adds to costs in the long run.

“Quite frankly, the county has failed to spend the monies necessary for infrastructure in order to keep up with current conditions,” he said. “It’s a good sign that we’re starting to see an uptick in capital spending, but we’re not caught up. We’re behind the eight ball.”