Albemarle eyes major tax hike thanks to school budget mandates

File photo. File photo.

Albemarle County is facing its first property tax rate increase in years, and it’s a doozy: After a series of workshops that ended earlier this month, the Board of Supervisors advertised a rate of 80.8 cents per $100 of assessed value. That’s a hike of 4.2 cents, which translates to a tax bill of $2,279 for the owner of a home assessed at the county average of $282,002—an increase of $119 over last year for the same property.

What’s behind the increase? The biggest factor is the school division, which, with about $182.7 million in projected total expenditures, represents well over half of the county’s total $349.3 million recommended budget.

County staff’s initial budget recommendation, which came with a 1.7 cent tax increase, left a school funding gap of $5.8 million. Much of the board-approved higher rate will go toward closing that gap: Another $3.4 million will be steered to the schools, for a total increase over last year’s budget of $7.9 million.

The additional increase would also fund new county staff positions—including two police officers and a social services worker—and operations, to the tune of about $378,000, according to budget documents.

Supervisor Ann Mallek voted for the increase, which passed 4-2, but wants to see more effort to bring the rate down before the budget is finalized. The school division’s request wasn’t just big, she said, it was opaque. In earlier years, she said, school budget presentations have prioritized funding, and indicated what increases were essential and what initiatives could wait, but this year, there was no such guidance.

“The superintendent’s budget didn’t get me anywhere,” said Mallek. With such a big tax hike, people are going to demand accountability, she said, and the county supervisors could use a heavier hand in dictating how the division divides up revenue. “We could say, ‘This much money should go into the instruction part of your budget,’” she said. “They don’t want me making that decision. But somebody has to.”

School board chair Ned Gallaway takes issue with that approach.

“If we felt there was low-hanging fruit or low-priority items that could be cut, we would have made the cuts,” he said. “We knew we couldn’t ask for huge new things we’d never done before.”

He explained that the vast majority of the asked-for $9 million school budget increase is coming from two things: a 2 percent salary increase already agreed upon by the county and a massive hike in the state-mandated local contribution to the Virginia Retirement System, a line item that for the schools has gone from $3 million to $17 million in the last three years.

In other words, the increase is an unavoidable mandate, Gallaway said, and after years of slicing away at the operational budget, there’s very little fat to trim, even as enrollment continues to go up and the schools are held in limbo by a state legislature that has yet to finalize its budget. Any cuts “are cuts none of us feel we should make,” he said, and will affect class sizes. If the schools are handed a shortfall, then they’ll figure out how to spread out the pain.

“We put forward the funding request we feel we need to meet the demands of the high standard of education in the county,” Gallaway said.

The Board of Supervisors holds a public hearing on the budget and the rate increase at 6pm on Tuesday, April 8 at the County Office Building.