By Neil Williamson, President
In Wednesday’s (2/1) meeting, without so much as a formal public hearing, Albemarle County’s Board of Supervisors plans to send a $1.4 million dollar piggy bank to the unelected Citizen Advisory Councils so that the elected officials don’t have to make the hard budget choices.
Nothing they are doing is illegal, it’s just not right. Please let me explain.
Albemarle’s annual Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) Budget is laborious and involves significant number of staff hours to determine the staff priority for Capital projects such as vehicles, buildings and renovations.
Over the last 13 years the Free Enterprise Forum has been impressed with the level of detail and careful consideration the CIP committee (including citizen representation and 2 elected BOS members) have put into these discussions. There have been times when one geographic portion of the development areas had CIP projects that garnered higher scores by the committee and these were funded rather than less urgent projects.
The new “Neighborhood Funding Initiative” would siphon off $1.4 million of the annual CIP budget and allocate it geographically and by population. The staff has proposed a formula to accomplish this task:
Staff has simply developed this Board driven concept. In fact, the staff report hints at a better manner to utilize citizen involvement along with the elected officials within the current CIP process.
staff has conducted best practices research which is summarized as Attachment A that revealed that the majority of these types of community focused improvement funding programs fall into three basic categories: neighborhood matching grants; formal citizen involvement in capital planning; and citizen-driven Capital Improvement Programs. After hearing the Board’s discussion, staff thinks that the third category may most clearly align with the Board’s preferences, so the program has been designed along those lines. If the Board would like this program to be more closely incorporated in the already existing CIP review, evaluation and ranking process that would be another viable approach.
The Free Enterprise Forum has long been a critic of the unelected CACs.
In 2009 we wrote:
The Free Enterprise Forum believes citizen groups (including us) should have the ability to be active participants in the workings of local government. That being said, we are increasingly concerned that the leadership function of some Boards and Commissions may be inappropriately delegating to community organizations.
With the proposed policy change, beyond effective regulatory veto power over development projects that would advance the community vetted comprehensive plan, Albemarle now seems poised to give these unelected “mission creeping” Citizen Advisory Councils the county purse strings as well.
As the Supervisors continue to delegate, I wonder what will be left for them to do … besides run for reelection.
As we said in 2009:
In the end, elected leaders must lead, not delegate, if citizens don’t like the direction they should replace the leaders.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Stay tuned.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org
By. Neil Williamson, President
The Albemarle County Planning Commission (PC) has reached a new high in mission creep as in their January 26th meeting they chose to not only ignore a 2014 change in Virginia state law, they also decided to ignore a clearly worded memo of direction from the Board of Supervisors regarding cash proffer calculation.
Along the way, they expanded their directive and in an effort to extract more cash proffers from new home buyers, they started the ball rolling on a “Fantasy Island” Capital Improvement Program (CIP) that could, if ever implemented, increase annual CIP spending by $144.3 Million and increase property taxes by 37.5% ($750+ on a $250,000 home).
Please let me explain.
The Fiscal Impact Advisory Committee (FIAC) produced a report in September 2015 indicating the need to dramatically reduce the maximum cash proffer amount permitted to bring Albemarle County in line with the 2014 change in State Code. The 2014 law requires the calculation be based on only CIP projects that increase capacity (rather than maintenance).
FIAC’s recommendation followed the 2014 state law change:
2) Amend the maximum per unit cash proffer amounts to:
o SFD – $4,918 (2014 value was $20,987)
o SFA/TH – $3,845 (2014 value was $14,271)
o MF – $5,262 (2014 value was $14,871)
The September 3, 2014 memo from the Board of Supervisors directing the PC and FIAC to review the Cash Proffer Calculation was very clear:
Specifically the Board requests that the Committee:
1) Analyze possible credits for:
-Development in targeted areas. Targeted areas are those areas shown as Priority Areas identified in each Master Plan Area.
-Mixed use developments.
-Development supportive of growth management strategies of the Comprehensive Plan.
2) Provide recommendations on changes to existing credits in the policy, including the credit that may be provided for by-right units, now available by policy only in limited circumstances (Policy § C(6)(c)).
3) Update the County’s maximum per unit cash proffer amount by dwelling unit type.
4) Provide this advice and recommendation at the earliest possible date.
Several members of the FIAC complained to the Planning Commission that the proffer number was too low due to the change in State law and Albemarle’s recent “maintenance only” CIP. Rather than accepting the report and direction from a committee that met 18 times over the last year and half, the Planning Commission discussion focused the committee’s disgruntled members and on their own uncomfortableness with the resultant proffer numbers required by state law.
PC Members wanted staff to detail all the capital projects required to achieve the vision of the newly approved comprehensive plan. It was their thought that this would provide a better context than what the state law provided.
The Free Enterprise Forum has been critical of the Planning Commission’s involvement in these fiscal discussions. Part of that criticism is based on the limited scope of the commission and the reality that Planning Commissioners do not fully understand the capital spending crisis Albemarle County is already in.
Cash proffers provide less than 3.5% of the annual revenue for capital spending. The lion’s share comes from property taxes.
With the economic downturn, recent Boards of Supervisors chose not to increase taxes to keep up with new infrastructure demands but rather to kick such funding down the road and only fund maintaining existing infrastructure.
Albemarle’s FY2016 Budget Message summed it up succinctly:
As most recently reviewed, the CIP continues to focus on meeting mandates, maintaining existing infrastructure, and investing in those projects that allow the County to continue core and necessary services without substantial increases in operational costs. … As most recently reviewed, $152.1 million or 50% of the requested CIP projects were unable to be funded with current resources.
So what does that mean the Planning Commission is contemplating?
Based on our review of the Comprehensive Plan and Albemarle’s own assessment that they can’t fund half of the CIP projects already on the books now – we conservatively estimate the Planning Commission Fiscal Follies would likely triple the CIP need.
Therefore, to fully fund the Planning Commission’s “Fantasy Island” CIP could be $.40+ (currently ~$.10) on the tax rate. Based on Albemarle’s tax calculator – on a $250,000 home that equates to a $750 [37.5%] increase in local property taxes.
But the Planning Commission really is not in a place to understand this fiscal reality. As unelected appointees, they do not have to face the voters with such fiscal follies.
The Free Enterprise Forum calls on the Planning Commission to cease wasting limited staff resources on this fanciful mission creep into County fiscal matters. We believe they should vote (either way) on the September 2015 FIAC recommendation and send their recommendation to the Board of Supervisors who do answer to the voters.
We believe a 37.5% “Fantasy Island” CIP property tax increase would generate significant discussion among the Board and voters.
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County.
Photo Credits: Charlottesville Tomorrow, ABC Television
By. Neil Williamson, President
Through the use of zoning, architectural design guidelines, regulations and overlay districts, local governments already control the size, appearance and type of activity conducted on any given parcel, now in Albemarle they want government to dictate when the market is ready for a permitted activity (see first bullet below).
Please let me explain.
One of the primary philosophical issues with government comprehensive planning is government comprehensive planning. While state code mandates that all localities have such plans and they be updated every five years, the level of detail of these plans differs widely.
Albemarle County has been engaged in this comprehensive plan update for well over two years. Late on Wednesday evening, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors will hold a public hearing on the proposed Comprehensive Plan. After the public hearing, they plan to hold future work sessions, where public comment may or may not be permitted prior to adoption of the plan. We strongly encourage the Board to accept public comment prior to each of their work sessions.
The Free Enterprise Forum has been engaged in this effort since the beginning and continues to find significant issues. Here are just a few:
- In what can only be described as government overreach, page 7.34 outlines that Albemarle should only approve a permitted land use “when a significant unmet need can be established for this type of use”. This concept is outlandish and fundamentally flawed. While government can, and should, consider the impacts of uses on the larger community, the business decision of need or viability should be placed squarely with the landowner who is taking the risk.
- In addition to being a planner employment act (calling for significant increase in planning staff), the comprehensive plan regularly fails to recognize property rights and the positive stewardship of private property owners.
- Last year at the Planning Commission, we led the fight with Monticello and successfully got the “veiwshed” preservation regulations removed from the document. Surprisingly despite that very public victory, the plan still calls for enabling legislation for new overlay powers designed for “scenic protection and tourist enhancement”.
- In the mid 200s, the community was engaged in a rancorous debate over property rights and mountaintop “protection” ordinance. The ordinance effort failed yet is mentioned in the 2014 Comprehensive Plan no less than four times.
- The transportation chapter cites a reduction in Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) as a goal. This is nonsense. The goal should be efficient and effective transport not a multimodal anti-mobility metric. Conceptually, this misguided goal would be met if no one ever went anywhere.
- The number one objective in the Economic Development chapter [the shortest chapter in the plan] is to “Ensure that economic development goals are supportive of the County’s Growth Management Policy and consistent with other Comprehensive Plan goals”. This is a misplaced priority. Objective 1 should be focused on making sure there is work for those who want to work.
- Strategy 1d in the Economic Development chapter is “Encourage all businesses to adopt environmentally sustainable business practices”. Such a strategy may be appropriate in another chapter but I am at a loss to understand how this will help economic development. It seems like a “feel good” tack on that has no nexus to economic vitality.
With much of the community now focused on the Western Bypass public hearing next week, the Free Enterprise Forum anticipates few speakers on this critical five year philosophical planning document. Absent significant public outcry, the Supervisors will choose not to review the plan chapter by chapter but to enact it with little or no changes.
Considering the perceived import of this plan if the BOS fails to fully vet the document, that’s planning to fail.
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is the President of the Free Enterprise Forum, a local government public policy organization located in Charlottesville. www.freeenterpriseforum.org
By. Neil Williamson, President
Last night (4/3), the Albemarle County Planning Commission was considering whether a proposed Police shooting range on the old Keene landfill property (closed in 1991) was compatible with the County’s Comprehensive Plan.
It is important to note that the Free Enterprise Forum has no position on this, or any other application. We do find it incredibly enlightening whenever Albemarle County is the applicant.
In a perfect world, the Planning Commission would limit its questions to those areas where it has legislative authority. Other questions may be “interesting” but applicants should not feel compelled to answer them. The Free Enterprise Forum has spoken out about this mission creep in several recent meetings.
During the questioning of the applicant several commissioners raised the issue of safety, noise, hours of operation, caliber of weapon (as it impacts noise) as well as intensity of facility use in the discussion with the applicant. All of these questions clearly are tied to the land use and the neighborhood impacts and are appropriate.
Three of the commissioners also asked the applicant (the County) questions that were way outside the land use determination in front of them:
- Did Albemarle County consider other properties for this facility?
- How wide was the search?
- Were non county owned parcels considered?
- How much will this facility cost?
- How short is the department from its full staffing of officers?
- Has the County considered other options for this stated police training need?
When I raised the question of appropriateness of cost questions to a land use decision during the public hearing, the ex-officio (non voting) commissioner responded “it’s because it’s tax dollars”
Rather than publicly argue this point in what is designed to be a one way conversation, I replied that I understood.
What I understood is that this commissioner (and some of her associates) did not understand their charge.
In the end the issue passed 5-2 (Smith and Dotson opposed). As stated above, the Free Enterprise Forum has no opinion on this application but we believe this case is illustrative of a flawed Albemarle “inquisition” process.
The question before the Planning Commission was simply is this land use compatible with the comprehensive plan. The idea that it is a vital function of public safety is important but not critical to the decision. It could be argued if a police shooting range is found to be compatible with the Comprehensive Plan clearly a private range in the same location with the same impacts and should result in the same decision.
Until then they should stay in their own sandbox.
Neil Williamson, President
Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and Nelson County. For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org
This morning’s Daily Progress headline “County nature watchdogs face crisis” suggests the survival of a vital committee is in danger. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is an advisory committee that has strayed far from its original mission and would be best served to be disbanded.
A little history, prior to the formation of the Natural Heritage Committee, The Free Enterprise Forum and others questioned whether the tasks proposed for the committee were appropriate for County government. The Natural Heritage Committee’s charge (from the Albemarle County website) is as follows:
The Natural Heritage Committee is an advisory committee that maintains the County’s Biodiversity Assessment, advises the Board of Supervisors, the Planning Commission, and County staff on applying biodiversity information to land-use decision-making, and supports biodiversity education in the County.
Albemarle County’s July 6, 2005 Executive Summary provides a concise history of the inception of the Natural Heritage Committee:
In November 2001, the Board of Supervisors authorized the creation of a Biodiversity Work Group (BWG), whose charge was to begin the Biodiversity Assessment of the County called for in the Natural Resource and Cultural Assets chapter of the Comprehensive Plan, and to advise the Board on the composition of a permanent advisory committee on biodiversity issues. The BWG was made up of citizen volunteers including local naturalists, professionals in biological and environmental sciences, and experts in environmental education. On December 1, 2004, the Board accepted the report of the Biodiversity Work Group.
On March 2, 2005, the Board authorized the creation of the standing Natural Heritage Committee, a technical advisory group on biodiversity issues, as recommended by the Natural Resources and Cultural Assets chapter of the Comprehensive Plan.
Interestingly on another portion of the Albemarle County website the Natural Heritage Committee defined their mission MUCH more expansively:
The mission of the Natural Heritage Committee (NHC) is to maintain and restore the County’s
native biological diversity and provide a healthy environment for the citizens of Albemarle County.
In my years of watching local government, this is the largest leap of self importance I have ever seen. This appointed advisory committee of volunteers is responsible for maintaining and restoring the native biological diversity ??????
This is a clear example of Mission Creep. This committee honestly believes (and staff must concur as they put it on the website) that their charge is far greater than anything that has been voted on by the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors. In usurping this power, the NHC has diminished their considerable scientific credentials and drifted far from their original mission.
This brings us yesterday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, where this committee in presenting its Annual Report indicated if they did not get additional funding and staff support some of their well qualified volunteers would resign.
As the Free Enterprise Forum said in 2005, the documentation of Albemarle County’s ever evolving biodiversity is best left to the many qualified science based environmental organizations operating in our region and to the academic sector.
If the NHC wishes to take its ball and go home, Albemarle County would be better off looking to scientific organizations outside of County government to inform decisions related to biodiversity.