On May 27, Kathy described the challenges faced by Charlottesville schools in light of significant increases in enrollment over the past 4 years, especially in grades K – 4.
‘Galvin says council needs to closely work with the School Board on the issue. “As that bumper crop of children start passing through the system, we need to make sure that we’ve got the right room for children to learn, and the right room for teachers to teach,” she said.
Galvin also plans to expand access to the city’s pre-kindergarten, saying that would help single mothers by reducing childcare costs.’
Watch the news account of Kathy’s press conference here:
- How did we get here? According to the 2001 Comprehensive Plan, there was “a fragile nature to the Charlottesville economy” because the City’s share of the regional retail sector was declining and not enough housing was being built to meet demand. The City’s zoning ordinances were changed in 2003 in large part to turn this situation around by allowing more density, more mixed use and taller buildings all “by right.” Developers could exceed “by right” densities and building heights with a special use permit (or SUP) which also meant they had to either build more affordable housing or contribute to the housing fund. From a fiscal standpoint, that strategy worked. Recently approved projects on West Main Street will eventually generate roughly $3 million in property tax revenue which is 18 times more revenue than from the previously empty lots and garages. (That’s about 5 to 6 cents on the real estate tax rate.) Revenue from growth keeps our taxes low and pays for services like education and police. Plus more supply drives rental rates down. But just as people deserve more than empty parking lots and abandoned garages, they deserve development that creates the kind of places we grow to love and value.
- Is Status Quo Inevitable? Existing zoning has been the law of the land since 2003, and most people don’t realize that councilors cannot vote against a project simply because they don’t like the aesthetics or style of a building. Back in December 2012 I expressed concern about how the ACD guidelines left a lot of room for interpretation by 21 people (7 PC members, 9 BAR members, 5 councilors.) The 2013 PLACE Design Task Force Annual Report summed up the problem best however. “The different character of West Main along its length was not reflected in the planning guidelines and codes governing the corridor, and the expectations for development were not clear, creating a difficult review process for those wishing to build along the corridor.” City councilors must follow the law and strict standards of review which means there are no short cuts. If we want new development to reflect the best of Charlottesville, now is the time to put new rules in place with the force of law.
4. How can we move forward? The March 2015 Existing Conditions Report by Rhodeside Harwell also stated, that the factors that contribute to the character of a place “include the height and mass of existing buildings, as well as the relationship between buildings and the street.” On March 17, Rhodeside Harwell presented their recommendations to City council on how to change our zoning ordinance so that new development contributes to the character of the place we call West Main. Strong points for me included:
- Restricted and reduced building heights along West Main Street, especially east of the Drewary Brown Bridge.
- Rear building heights that step down to match the heights of adjacent residential neighborhoods.
- Measurable standards instead of design guidelines subject to unlimited review and interpretation.
I believe the changes proposed by Rhodeside Harwell will head us in the right direction without hurting the City’s bottom line or discouraging the kind of redevelopment we need. That’s why on April 20, (with the help of Councilor Szakos,) I introduced a resolution to initiate a public process to consider zoning ordinance changes within the West Main Street Corridor District, using Rhodeside Harwell ’s recommendations as point of departure. That resolution and the proposed zoning code changes will be discussed on May 18.
Since February I have worked to forge a compromise between 2 councilors opposed to any tax and 2 councilors who supported a 1% meals tax increase to close a $2.1 million budget gap.
In the process I sought to answer two questions: can we diversify the tax so as to distribute the fiscal burden; and can we cut expenditures from the operating budget in order to reduce the budget gap. That’s why I put the 0.5% meals tax combined with a lodging tax on the table. That’s why in March I worked to close the budget gap by reducing operating expenditures without hurting our schools, police and triple AAA bond rating. Some of my proposals included: no new staff in the departments of Neighborhood Development Services, Public Works or Parks & Recreation; funding 6 new police officers instead of the 8 requested; and consolidating requests from mental health service providers. Instead, Council chose to increase our operating expenditures, without authorizing the use of a lodging tax to close the budget gap.
Faced with a growing operating budget and reduced revenue options, other Council members called for a 0.5% meals tax plus tapping into our reserve funds. They also called for additional cuts, which I saw as putting school funding in jeopardy. City Council had already cut the original $2.7 million school request by $1 million. What had also been left out of the conversation was the impact of unfunded state and federal mandates on our school division’s operating budget. This year alone, the Richmond General Assembly voted to give teachers a 1.5% raise at a cost of $1.5 million, but only allocated $103,000 to our local division. While state and federal funding decreased by over $2.5 million, the city school population increased by over 300 children during the same time period.
Well-functioning public schools are the backbone of a strong local economy. Without them we don’t attract the businesses that provide jobs or the people who work in those jobs who eat in our restaurants. While some studies have shown that large meals tax increases of 3 or 4 percent did hurt local restaurants, others have shown that marginal increases like 1% did not change consumer habits. Nonetheless, I crafted a retirement provision that is now included in the 1% meals tax increase ordinance.
Fiscal discipline is about making the numbers work to pay for the services our citizens need and passing budgets on time. Fiscal discipline is not about dipping into reserves whenever there is a deficit, thereby risking our bond rating and diminishing our capacity to maintain our infrastructure or respond to unexpected crises.
The public expects its local government to work to solve problems. In the end, the most workable solutions often require compromise.