2.5 cents: Supes vote to advertise bumped-up property tax rate

Supervisor Ann Mallek supports advertising the higher tax rate and would like to see 1 cent of the property tax rate applied to capital construction projects.
Photo:  John Robinson Supervisor Ann Mallek supports advertising the higher tax rate and would like to see 1 cent of the property tax rate applied to capital construction projects. Photo: John Robinson

For the second year in a row, Albemarle County’s property tax rate could go up. When County Executive Tom Foley presented his $371-million budget to the Board of Supervisors, he based it on increasing the property tax rate by one penny to 80.9 cents per $100 of assessed value. The board went 1.5 cents better, and voted 4-2 to advertise a rate of 82.4 cents, the highest the county has ever considered.

Virginia requires a jurisdiction to advertise its tax rate before voting on it, and the board can always go lower than the advertised rate, but not higher. Admittedly, Albemarle has a pretty low tax rate compared to Charlottesville’s 95 cents per $100. Eight years ago, it was 68 cents, and revenue was pumped up by soaring real estate assessments. Even before subtracting  the 10 cents of the tax rate that goes to Charlottesville for revenue sharing, Albemarle has one of the lowest rates of the top 20 most populous counties in the state, according to Foley.

Two supervisors—Chair Jane Dittmar and Ken Boyd—voted against upping the rate.

Dittmar nay’d the 2.5-cent increase because the tax rate went up more than 3 cents last year and real estate assessments are up. “I am really reticent about going back to our citizens for even more, or at least more than the county executive’s recommendation of a 1-cent tax increase, which dedicates the entire penny to fire and rescue,” she said in an e-mail.

“We raised taxes quite a bit last year,” echoed Boyd. Every penny in the tax rate represents $1.6 million of revenue. “When we put so much money on the table, people come out of the woodwork” seeking funding, he said. “I don’t think we’re out of the recession.”

Foley’s Fiscal Year 2015-2016 budget is nearly 6 percent more than last year’s and focuses on the core services that were neglected during the lean, mean, budget-slashing years of the recession. “We face the difficult but compelling reality that we cannot continue to neglect critical services needs that directly impact citizens and employees while funding more aspirational programs,” said Foley in his letter to the supervisors, which lists the Acquisition of Conservation Easements program, school modernization and sidewalk construction as enhancements not funded beyond the current year under this budget.

Albemarle is pretty much in the bottom rank statewide for police staffing—126th out of 133 jurisdictions, Foley reports. Population growth fueled the need for three more fire stations and a 110 percent increase in expenditures in fire and rescue. And the Social Services Department is down 23.3 positions.

Boyd wants to pay more attention to police and fire and rescue, and he thinks that can be done by looking for savings rather than increasing the tax rate. “I think we’ve been ignoring them to give money to schools. I’m glad to see them front and center.” He’s concerned that Albemarle police are so thinly spread at night that backup response time can have serious safety consequences.  Schools get 60 percent of Albemarle’s budget. “They spend a lot of money buying stuff like fiber optics,” said Boyd, “when we can’t give a full year’s raise. I would like to see it spent on people.”

Supervisor Ann Mallek, too, sees police and fire as top priorities. She also wants to dedicate 1 cent of the property tax rate to capital construction, which the county did very little of during the recession. She  said that’s why it took so long to get the Crozet Library built and the Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department upgraded. “We’ve fallen way behind,” she said. “Waiting too long to do repairs is not fiscally responsible.”

The supervisors have nine town hall meetings planned over the next few weeks to find out how citizens want their county funds spent before the board votes on a property tax rate April 14. “I do intend to stay open to citizen viewpoints about this important decision until after our town halls and public hearings,” said Dittmar.

Said Mallek, who has three town halls, “It puts it on the shoulders of the citizenry to say what they want.”