Western Albemarle citizens told local Supervisors Ann Mallek (White Hall District) and Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller District) to reduce County spending and not to raise real estate taxes at three town hall meetings the supervisors held in March to gauge public opinion on budget issues. Later in the month the board decided to advertise a tax rate of 74.2 cents per hundred dollars of assessed value for public comment.
Appearing together at Henley Middle School on the 9th, before a crowd of about 50, the two supervisors were told by one speaker, “Everybody is cutting back. Wait until the tide goes up again before raising taxes. Two and a half cents is too much.”
Thomas called the real estate tax “a lousy tax” and noted that two-thirds of Albemarle’s government revenues comes from local sources whereas only 50 percent of Augusta County’
s does. The difference is a larger state contribution, she said. But another speaker, who also owns property in Augusta, challenged that point. Local government in Augusta is one-third the size of local government in Albemarle, he said, and Augusta pays its employees less.
Speakers generally opposed the idea of a rainy day fund. Thomas was inclined to favor it because she believes current revenue predictions will turn out to be too high and the county will end up in the red. Mallek said she had got the message that now is not the time build up a reserve fund.
“Surely the government could cut back,” said another citizen. “When I heard that during a crisis the county was talking about raising taxes, I thought you were out of your mind.”
There will be no pay increase for county employees this year, Thomas noted, and 57 vacant positions are not being filled.
Citizens also challenged the revenue sharing agreement with the City of Charlottesville. “It’s still a good bargain,” responded Thomas. “We asked the city to be let out of it.” But Charlottesville officials, for obvious reasons—they will get $18 million from the deal this year—
have no interest in talking about changing it, she said. The deal was struck in 1982 when the county feared the city was about to annex valuable commercial property along Rt. 29 north. A year later, the state imposed a moratorium on annexation that remains in effect. Albemarle is the only county in Virginia that makes payments to a city.
“I hope we can develop a better relationship with the city and do more regional projects,”
said Mallek, suggesting that then county taxpayers would get more benefit from the money they give to Charlottesville.
Jo Ann Perkins, wife of late supervisor Walter Perkins, said, “Cut back on consultant fees. We hire people for those jobs already. Please look at that.”
Thomas said sales tax revenue to the county could go up when a new GPS system for locating the point of sale is implemented. The implication is that under the current system some sales may have been wrongly regarded as having occurred in the city.
Pam Carmagnola said she was willing to pay higher taxes for schools. She said she was alarmed at talk about no teacher raises or the possibility of eliminating school nurses.
At a meeting the next night at Murray Elementary School attended by 18 people, including school board members Diantha McKeel and Jon Stokes, Albemarle Truth in Taxation Alliance chairman Keith Drake (who videotaped the meeting, as well as a later one Mallek held at the White Hall Community Center) challenged school expenses, especially in the central office.
Thomas replied that, “We are cutting down on everything we do. Mostly cutting in the planning and zoning departments. We made a major mistake when we decided what the budget would be because you [citizens] think we are adding. We are trying not to fire people. But businesses are firing people and they won’t take us seriously until we fire people.”
“Taxes have been raised more than double and that can’t be sustained and shouldn’t have been done in the first place,” said one speaker. “A lot of people have been run out of the county by taxes.” When he asked people there who opposed a tax increase to stand, 10 stood up.
Thomas said she heard from other people who are willing to pay more. “You’re sitting in a county with a low tax rate. We have efficient government and an efficient tax rate. A lot of people care about the schools, music programs, teacher compensation, JAUNT.”
Drake noted that the commercial real estate tax rate had been raised 9.7 percent and that cost was going to be passed on to consumers.
A resident of the southern part of the district said that southern Albemarle residents feel neglected and that they pay higher taxes only to watch fire and rescue services be improved in northern areas. “Supervisors seem to concentrate on the urban ring,” he said, “and neglect the rural areas. But still we pay to support that. We don’t want more service, but we don’t want to pay more for what we have.”
When the revenue-sharing agreement was condemned again, Thomas predicted that breaking it would probably lead to the city reverting to town status, thus becoming part of the county. She maintained that the county can’t get out of the deal. Drake noted that the deal’
s article 5 calls for shared services and said the spirit of that section is not being upheld.
Mallek faced about 45 constituents at her meeting in White Hall on the 17th. A painted sheet of plywood outside the Community Hall read: “Mallek Taxes 6:30.”
Challenged on the revenue-sharing agreement, Mallek said, “If we take it to court we will surely lose.”
“Keep pressure on the city until this is rectified,”
she was advised. The deal views the county as receiving the full market value of all property and does not take into account the reduction from the land use program, she was reminded.
“Do we get any benefit from the deal?” she was asked. “Having a healthy community,”
Even though the deal was ratified by county voters in a referendum, one citizen said, “It was a contract written under duress because the city was threatening annexation.”
“We need to play hardball,”
Ray Jones, the county’s director of finance until he retired in 1990, said, “We’ve been victims of our own success. We’ve allowed things to be taxed that shouldn’t be.” He advised Mallek to have the board inform the city that the county is going to terminate the deal. That got a loud round of applause. “I’d love to see us go back under general law. The city would have to prove ‘necessity’ in order to annex, which is unlikely. Take away $18 million and they’ll talk to you.” The deal provides about 10 percent of the city’
s budget, he noted.
“The county should be able to live on 71 cents and still do the things you want. Going line-by-line, I guarantee I can get millions out of that budget. Learn to say no,”
Cliff Fox noted that the county’s new economic development policy calls the University of Virginia and the National Ground Intelligence Center the “primary economies” of the area, but neither of them pays taxes. “The county is stuck in a paradigm. Because they don’t have an industrial base, they look to land [for taxes]. We need to promote business development. The other problem is that county land use policy promoted a shift away from light industrial uses to regional shopping centers. Those don’t have good jobs.”
Joe Jones objected to the policy of assigning every parcel in the county a building site value, even though many parcels have none, such as those in mountain areas, thus falsely inflating the tax value of the land.
Mary Ford said, “The county is trying to pacify us” with the decision to raise rates but not enough to create a reserve fund. “Assessments will go back up and then that higher tax rate will be there and it will be another increase.”
“Is the middle class going to be allowed to live in Albemarle?” asked Keith Ford. “We have a terrible mess because we didn’t manage the money we had. Nobody manages what we’ve got. They just ask for more.” That brought loud sustained applause. “Income from taxes has probably tripled in recent years and we just spent it. People who have been here for 200 years are being forced off their land.”
“It’s loud and clear that you don’t want taxes raised,”
“We’re not here to negotiate with you about whether 74 cents is a good compromise,” said Sarah Henley. “Your constituents are saying cut spending and do not raise taxes. We don’t want it raised above 71 cents.”