Thanks, Joe, for taking the time to write the following. For some quick background, here’s the last CCAC meeting. I highly encourage, ask, implore all to read this to understanding how funding our schools works – costs, timelines, voices. It’s a lot to digest, and hopefully you can read it before next important CIP meeting on 22 October.
By Joe Fore
On Tuesday, October 15, the Albemarle Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) Advisory Committee held its first meeting to discuss which capital projects—long-term infrastructure investments, like buildings, roads, and new equipment—the Board of Supervisors should fund over the next five years.
I attended the meeting because I was interested in one project in particular: the expansion of Crozet Elementary. Both the School Board and Board of Supervisors have prioritized the project a way to alleviate the severe overcrowding at Brownsville and Crozet Elementary. The Crozet Community Advisory Committee (on which I serve) also recently adopted a resolution urging officials to fund the project. I was eager to see whether the Crozet Elementary expansion would continue to get the same level of support it’s received so far. I was also hoping that there would be an opportunity for public comment so that I could share the CCAC’s resolution.
But before I give my thoughts on the meeting, it’s important to give just a bit of background on the CIP process and how we got here. (Those interested in a TL;DR version of the meeting can check out my Twitter thread summarizing the meeting in a shorter format.)
The CIP Process and the Advisory Committee’s Role
Tuesday’s meeting was just one part of a much larger budgeting process to decide which of the County’s capital projects get funded over the next 5 years (FY21-25). Here’s a flowchart/timeline of the full process:
The CIP Advisory Committee is represented by that green box in the middle. As you can see, there’s a lot that preceded this meeting and a lot that’s yet to happen after the Advisory Committee finishes its work. But the Advisory Committee is a crucial gatekeeper in the process because the committee will recommend the final slate of projects that will then go to the Board of Supervisors for approval.
Again, though, the Advisory Committee’s work comes in the middle of the process; it’s not just dreaming up projects and funding amounts out of thin air. The Advisory Committee relies on inputs from the Board of Supervisors and the School Board. More specifically, the Advisory Committee has two key constraints that it’s working with: (1) the total amount of money available, and (2) the list of possible projects that the Advisory Committee can choose from.
The Money: $55 million for FY21-25
The first key constraint, of course, is money. After all, if there were an unlimited amount of money, there’d be no need to pick and choose among various projects; they’d all get funded. But that’s not the case. And where does the money come from? In Albemarle County, around 2/3 of the County’s revenues come from property taxes. So if the County wants to spend more to invest in infrastructure projects, it has to raise property taxes—specifically, real estate taxes.
In May 2019, the Board of Supervisors met to consider several scenarios for CIP funding levels and the corresponding real estate tax increases that would need to happen to generate those funds. The Board of Supervisors ultimately settled on the “Level 2” scenario: a 4.5-to-6-cent property tax increase, which would generate an extra $61 million in CIP funding from 2021 to 2027. The current Albemarle real estate property tax is 85.4 cents per hundred dollars of assessed value—meaning that a property assessed at $300,000 pays just under $2,600 a year in real estate taxes. So a 4.5-to-6-cent increase would mean around a 5-7% increase in real estate property taxes.
As I learned at Tuesday’s meeting, though, the actual amount that the Advisory Committee can use to build its list of recommended projects is only $55 million—not the full $61 million. Why? Because the Advisory Committee is only looking at projects for 2021-2025, not through 2027, as the Board of Supervisor’s funding scenarios show. As a result, the Advisory Committee can only recommend a slate of projects that totals $55 million or less.
The List of Potential Projects
Because there’s a limited amount of money available, the CIP Advisory Committee must select certain projects to recommend for funding. Where did the list of possible projects come from? Over the past year or so, the Board of Supervisors and the School Board each independently created its own list of capital improvement projects that those groups wanted to see funded.
The School Board’s list was generated by the School Board’s Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee, which spent 18 months analyzing the County’s long-term school needs and issued a final report in July 2019. That report recommended an ambitious slate of 10 CIP projects—totaling more than $100 million—for the School Board to present to the Board of Supervisors for funding. The report singled out the tremendous growth and overcrowding at Brownsville and Crozet Elementary and recommended a $20.4 million expansion for Crozet Elementary as a way to alleviate the overcrowding at both schools. Although other projects relating to safety, technology, and accessibility were ranked higher overall, the Crozet Elementary expansion project was the School Board’s #1 capacity-related project. (In terms of Crozet-area projects, renovations at Western Albemarle were also recommended—though they were given lower priority.)
Then, last month, the School Board and Board of Supervisors held a joint meeting, to discuss the priorities that each group had developed and to create a combined list of priorities. During that meeting, the members of each board arranged themselves into three smaller working “teams.” Each of these teams created a ranked list of ten projects that included projects from both the School Board and Board of Supervisors list. County staff then arranged the projects based on which had received the highest rankings from the three teams.
When the results were tallied, four projects received consistent, high rankings from all three teams:
- Transportation leveraging
- Economic development funds for public-private partnerships
- Cale Elementary expansion project
- Crozet Elementary expansion
Below this “Top 4” were an assortment of other projects—including school technology, environmentally-conscious initiatives, water-related projects, and other school renovations—that received widely varying levels of support.
The CIP Advisory Committee’s job, therefore, is to take this list of projects and—within that $55 million funding cap set by the Board of Supervisors—present a list of recommended projects to the Board for discussion and approval.
The Advisory Committee’s First Meeting
That brings us to Tuesday’s meeting of the CIP Advisory Committee. Here are my impressions of the meeting and how things look moving forward—particularly for the Crozet Elementary project. The bottom line is that the Crozet Elementary expansion is certainly being recognized as a critical project. But its relatively large cost compared to the available funds make it a potential target to be reduced in scope. And, more generally, I think the meeting revealed important, broader points about the County’s overall level of capital funding (it’s not enough) and the timeline for public participation in the process (it started way before this meeting).
1. This meeting was planning and overview; next meeting (October 22) is the crucial one. I’ll be honest: even for a budgeting meeting, Tuesday’s meeting was a bit boring. Informative, but boring. No real decisions got made. Instead, the meeting was largely about (a) reviewing the budgeting process, (b) explaining the Advisory Committee’s role, and (c) devising a plan for the group’s subsequent meetings. The discussion generally avoided mentioning specific projects, although there were comments that provided some insight into members’ thinking (as I’ll explain in #2). The next meeting—Tuesday, October 22, 2-4 pm, County Office Building—is where the rubber will meet the road.
2. The Crozet Elementary expansion is being taken seriously, but it may be in danger of being reduced in scale. Here’s the good news: the Crozet Elementary expansion is nestled safely among the Top 4 projects that were clearly set apart as the highest priorities by the Board of Supervisors and School Board. And, at Tuesday’s meeting, it seemed like members of the Advisory Committee generally agreed that their recommendations should reflect the rankings that were generated by the two Boards at their joint meeting.
Now, if they really wanted to remain faithful to the School Board/Board of Supervisor rankings, the Advisory Committee members could just start at the top of the list and work their way down—funding projects until they hit the $55 million cap. Well, guess what you get if you add up the cost of the Top 4 projects? $54.9 million. So the Advisory Committee could make its next meeting a short one by signing off on those four projects and calling it a day. But it may not be that easy.
Two of the “Top 4” projects—Transportation leveraging & Crozet Elementary—would take up $45.4 million out of a possible $55 million. And during the meeting, some members asked about whether the larger projects were “scalable.” I interpreted that as, essentially, asking whether the Crozet Elementary project could be adjusted in scope—funding the project, but at a reduced level—as a way of freeing up some money for some of the smaller (and lower-ranked) projects. I don’t know how “scalable” the Crozet Elementary project is, but if it is, I suspect some committee members may be interested in recommending that.
(It’s also possible that the Advisory Committee could reduce the amount earmarked for transportation leveraging, since that’s actually the largest single project—$25 million out of $55 million. But because funds allocated for that get matched by the state, it seems they would be somewhat less eager to take from that pot.)
3. The County needs more money for capital projects—which, realistically, means a higher real estate tax rate. For me, one of the clearest takeaways from this process is: there’s simply not enough money for the important capital projects that the County needs. And the tax-rate increases that the Board of Supervisors is willing to support just aren’t going to get us there anytime soon.
The prioritized list of projects created by the Board of Supervisors and School Board totaled $121 million—roughly twice the amount the Board of Supervisors was willing to raise to cover capital projects over the next seven years ($61 million). And that list is only a partial list of the broader range of capital projects that the School Board and Board of Supervisors want to fund. For example, remember that the School Board’s full list of suggested capital projects—just for the School Board—was over $100 million. I suppose it’s possible that some of these projects are just plain-old wastes of money. But looking at the list that the Advisory Committee is working off of, I don’t see a lot of vanity projects; I see basic infrastructure—roads, schools, drainage and water quality, waste-management facilities, greenways—that is necessary to support a clean, vibrant, and growing community.
Realistically, it seems the only way to generate the money to fund these projects is to increase real estate property taxes. Look, no one likes to pay more taxes. But, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said, “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society.”
And here’s the thing: it wouldn’t cost that much more to take care of our needs—or, at least, more of our needs. For example, if the Board of Supervisors had chosen the highest funding scenario, “Level 3,” it would have generated over $100 million for capital funding over the next seven years, rather than the $61 million currently available. That would be enough to take care of almost all the projects on the prioritized list (except the high school renovations). How much would that have cost homeowners? An extra 5.5-7 cents in tax rate. For someone with a $300,000 home, that’s an increase of around $180 a year. $15 a month. 50 cents a day.
Ultimately, when it comes to infrastructure, you get what you pay for—in the form of taxes. And right now, Albemarle County residents aren’t getting as much as we need.
4. It’s probably too late for the public to have much meaningful impact on this round of CIP priorities. One frustrating thing happened at the very beginning of the meeting: the audience was told that there would be no opportunity for public input. This was particularly irksome, since I was specifically there to share a resolution passed by the Crozet Community Advisory Committee expressing our support for the Crozet Elementary expansion and urging the County to fully fund the project. Our White Hall supervisor, Ann Mallek, helpfully pointed out that members of the public could provide written input, and I did take the opportunity to present the CCAC’s resolution supporting the Crozet Elementary project to the staff in attendance.
I’m a huge believer in public participation in local government. And I certainly don’t want to discourage people from attending meetings and making their voices heard. But, at this point, final CIP priority list has largely already been set by (a) the amount of CIP money available, as set by the Board of Supervisors and (b) the priority list decided upon by the Board of Supervisors and the School Board at September’s joint meeting. Each of those things was decided at least a month before Tuesday’s meeting, and those decisions were based on input and discussions that took place even earlier.
Now, to be sure, if the Advisory Committee goes off the rails and jettisons the Crozet Elementary project altogether or slashes its funding drastically, then the community should certainly object loudly and often to the Board of Supervisors. But it seems unlikely that the Board of Supervisors will be willing to do much tinkering with the nuts and bolts of the CIP recommendation—not after the Advisory Committee’s coordinated with County staff to do the hard work of considering all of the various scenarios and making a final recommendation.
So just like with the funding point, there’s a larger takeaway here: The time to advocate for capital projects is EARLY. For example, let’s say, hypothetically, that you wanted to push for a new elementary school in the Crozet area, rather than expanding Crozet. When should you have done that? Not at Tuesday’s meeting. Too late. Not at last month’s Board of Supervisors/School Board meeting. Too late. You’d have had to probably start advocating for that before the School Board’s Long-Range Planning Advisory Committee sometime in 2018 (18 months ago), when that committee started its own planning process that then filtered up to the School Board and then to the joint Board of Supervisors/School Board meeting. But at this point—when the Advisory Committee is sitting down to do its work—we’re simply too late in the process to have a meaningful impact on the capital projects that will get funded for the next few years.
So if there are capital projects that the Crozet community really wants to see done (like Eastern Avenue, Western Park, the Crozet Park recreational facility, or an entirely new elementary school) it’s critical to really start pushing for those projects with the School Board and the Board of Supervisors now—not because they’ll be funded this go-round, but, rather, in the hopes that they will percolate up to future CIP funding cycles years from now. As the old proverb says: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”
Final thoughts from Jim
The timelines for this stuff are infuriating, but a key takeaway is that our government demands patience, persistence, and being present, at damn near every opportunity. Those who show up and advocate for the things are the ones who get the things. As was suggested somewhat offhand at the last CCAC meeting, maybe we need a Crozet lobbyist, to simply go to all of these meetings and push for more funding for our schools. I genuinely don’t know the answers, but I know that without proper funding for our schools, with a plan that looks beyond 5 years- and plans to fund the things that we – our community, our kids, our society – need, we are in a world of trouble.