Balanced land use policies
Albemarle County has 470,000 acres of beautiful land and resources. We have the potential to utilize our land to create jobs and broaden our tax base, while complementing our rural landscapes. In recent years, total land devoted to land use taxation, conservation easements, historic districts, and exempt properties has grown, while our growth area has diminished in size. The designated Growth Area, as defined in the Comprehensive Plan, is currently down 5%, from 25,000 acres to approximately 24,000 acres. Yet, it is in the Growth Area that residences, small businesses, commercial buildings, and the space for creating new, clean businesses exist. In turn, this will broaden our tax base.
We need strong leadership to bring better balance to our land use policies. There has been much talk about change but, unfortunately, there has been no action. The county needs frank discussion about changes to the bright line of where the Growth Area boundary can be amended. For ten years, it has been clearly established that only 110 acres of land is zoned for light industry. However, to attract clean and innovative businesses, we need more parcels with flexible sizes. The county needs leaders who will honestly work toward a more balanced approach to our competing needs, instead of deferring the tough decisions to future generations.
Balanced approach to managing the county’s finances
Albemarle County Finances are out of balance because the Board of Supervisors has been driven to increase revenues by increasing property assessments and tax rates, while spending the revenue, including bond issuance, as quickly as possible. This cannot continue. The county must have a balanced budget: revenues and expenses should always equal one another.
The Albemarle County tax rate has risen four years in a row. Although this year’s proposed budget does not call for a tax increase, real estate assessments are up another 2.9%. During the past four years, an increase in both tax rates and real estate assessments has resulted in a whopping 25% increase in the tax rate to property owners. We are currently operating in a budgetary surplus, but every surplus dollar is being spent. At this rate, there is no preparation for an inevitable downturn.
Two years ago, the Board of Supervisors assembled a Blue Ribbon panel to help with budgeting. The panel suggested the Board study how to maintain lower expenses. Unfortunately, the Supervisors ignored the suggestion. The county doubled its net debt in four years. To date, there has not been an agenda item addressing how to effectively control county expenses.
In order to bring balance to the management of county finances, the Board of Supervisors must be financially disciplined. Not only have tax revenues risen by 25% in four years, clearly an unsustainable rate, but bond issuance growth is dramatic. Good financial managers know that good financial times do not last forever. They create “rainy day funds.” When the overall economy is doing well, the tax rate should actually be going down. Tax rates should not be raised to close an expense gap resulting from an economic downturn.
We must devise a sound financial blueprint to reduce our debt and efficiently manage our county’s financial resources.
Balanced economic development
Events during the past four years show unequivocally that economic development is not a priority in Albemarle County. The preface in a Memorandum of Understanding between the Chair of the Board of Supervisors and the Economic Development Authority clearly states that new businesses are not sought in the Comprehensive Plan area. Additional language expressly opposes an upgrade in zoning from rural land to either light industry or commercial use. The Board of Supervisors has shown that it is opposed to new businesses – even in the Growth Area. This attitude has cost the county solid, clean, responsible companies that wanted to expand their business to Albemarle County.
Before this campaign is finished, Samuel Miller constituents will realize there are some flawed, commonly held perceptions about business and growth. In addition to rural landscapes, there are other uses for our land of equal importance, including economic development. A new county executive will have a better balance between land needs, and a new Economic Development Director will carry out that program. Right now we have neither. One only needs to look at our neighbor, Charlottesville, to see how choosing good business partners benefits the whole community. By wooing and winning economic development opportunities, the tax pay back will pay for the growth. Within our Comprehensive Plan are designated desirable markets, thought to be of value to us. The missing ingredient is having the leadership to carry out the plan.
Broadening our tax base, by encouraging new businesses to either start or relocate to Albemarle County, would be a great start to relieving the burden from our citizens as the sole solution to our financial challenges. It would provide opportunities for the youth in our community to land career ladder jobs and reside here as adults, at the same time providing a future source of revenue to pay down our debts and live within our means.