By. Justin West, Charlottesville Field Officer Intern
Charlottesville City Council’s March 16th meeting touched on many of the divisive issues facing the City during a marathon five hour meeting. Around midnight the proceedings eventually came to a close with the five councilors weighing in on issues such as the city managers proposed 2010 budget, the school boards proposed 2010 budget, the appropriation of funds to build part of the Meadowcreek Parkway, and the composition of the Rivanna Water and Sewer and Solid Waste Authorities.
School Board Presents its 2010 Budget
Due to the hard economic times, including a nearly 12% decrease in state contributions the Charlottesville City School system plans to cut their budget by $1.4 million or 2.5% in FY 2010, while still attempting to keep city schools competitive in the region. Despite cuts of 4.1 positions at the central office level and 22 total city school officials are optimistic about the budget.
City School Superintendent Rosa Atkins made clear the city’s number one priority is teacher pay. Despite the drop in the overall budget teachers are receiving an additional 1 % pay increase potentially on top of the 1.5% increase many will receive by virtue of moving up a step on the city’s normal pay grade system. This could mean many teachers will be eligible for a 2.5 % pay increase, while those on the top of the scale will still receive the 1 % blanket increase. “We have to make our school division attractive to employees by maintaining salaries that are competitive with neighboring areas” argued Atkins. Additionally the budget provides for retirement incentives, which Atkins assured City Council are not designed to push employees into retirement, but reward them for their years of hard work for the City.
City Council served a limited, advisory role during the report on the School Board budget with Councilor Holly Edwards emphasizing that “it is important for City Council not to micro-manage the School Board”.
City Managers 2010 Budget Promises “no tax increases or cuts in services”
City Manager Gary O’Connell seemed quite pleased with his proposed FY 2010 budget that included no tax increases and no cuts in services despite $2.78 million in state cuts and lower property tax rates due to lower assessments the past few years. The losses are offset by cutting 14 city positions and by not providing city employees with a pay raise, a maneuver that will save the city about $1.3 million.
Additionally the budget provides for $2.8 million to be placed in an Economic Downturn Fund. The fund would contain emergency money that could help in getting the city through more unexpected state cuts or another significant drop in tax revenue. However, the fund is not seen by all as a good thing, a member of the public argued against it in the joint public hearing, claiming that the fund should have been created with the surplus money from the last few years budgets, when O’Connell was already speaking out about the conditions being present for downturn. Now, the citizen claims is an inappropriate time to make the fund because we are already amidst the downturn, instead he proposed that the city use the Downturn Fund money to lower tax rates, thus stimulating the economy of the region.
The public also went to bat for various groups, organizations, and programs perceived to be left out, or short changed by the budget like the Real Dads Program, Quality Community Council, and JABA. Mayor Dave Norris expressed concern on behalf of the programs acknowledging that there are some “hard questions we need to ask about viability and sustainability” of programs, adding that there are “many worthy programs” out there in the community.
Resolutions to Add Elected Officials to Rivanna Water and Sewer and Solid Waste Authorities Pass Unanimously
In two separate resolutions the city moved to authorize the addition of positions to be filled by elected officials on the boards, by two 5-0 votes. The resolution intends to create two new positions to be held by one City Councilor and one Board of Supervisor member on each authority. According to the council the action was taken in order to address public concerns about government employees on the boards, but former City Councilor Kevin Lynch, who spoke in the public hearing, saw the action as unnecessary in both cases.
Lynch who cited overworked appointees lack of attentiveness to the items at hand on the boards as the primary reason for their weaknesses, said adding elected officials will do nothing but exacerbate the problem, as they have a heavy work load as well. He also made the case that the city should not even be involved in the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority as it now serves the county more than the city. Lynch argues that in these times of budgetary struggle the city should cut ties with the authority and stop “subsidizing the counties recycling effort”. Despite Lynch and others from Citizens for a Sustainable Water Plan’s opposition the resolutions passed without a hiccup. Now the city must wait for the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors to pass similar resolutions before they can go to the State Corporation Commission.
Money Appropriated for Meadowcreek Parkway Interchange
The final item on the regular agenda for the evening and certainly the most high profile, was the 3-2 vote resulting in the appropriation of funds to be used on the Meadowcreek Parkway interchange at the route 250 Bypass and Hillsdale drive extended. The funds were $10,353,701 in VDOT money that the city has already received but had not appropriated to the appropriate account. $8,008,034 will be going to the Meadowcreek Parkway interchange, money that city Director of Neighborhood Services Jim Tolbert says could not be appropriated to any other project as it is a federal earmark, however, the $2,345,667 for the Hillsdale drive extended project could theoretically be moved around, undoubtedly not the answer Councilors Norris and Edwards were looking for.
The issue was addressed to Council as a mere balancing of the books by Tolbert, as the city has already taken the money, but as is true with anything Meadowcreek Parkway related the political element was never far from the surface. In addition to his vote against the appropriation of the money along with Councilor Edwards, Mayor Norris spoke out against the parkway, “I think it’s no secret where I stand on the Meadowcreek Parkway” he stated “even though I realize it’s a housekeeping measure I’d like to see those dollars allocated elsewhere”.