As the city of Charlottesville bumps up against its debt limit, the amount of money officials are allocating for infrastructure needs has dropped sharply.
According to a draft of next year’s capital budget, officials plan to allocate just $1 million for new projects out of a total of $5 million in new requests from city departments.
As proposed, the total capital budget for fiscal 2014 is about $11.2 million, a sizable drop from the $17.2 million capital budget adopted for the current fiscal year and the $24 million budget adopted for fiscal 2012.
Faced with less money to work with, city officials have laid out a plan that offers funding to just a handful of new capital projects.
Those projects include $600,000 to install fire sprinklers at Charlottesville High School; $300,000 for a new traffic light at the intersection of Hydraulic Road and Michie Drive; and $100,000 for repairs to the sprayground at Belmont Park.
Last year, city officials cut funding by 5 percent for basic maintenance to buildings, streets, sidewalks, parks and other infrastructure. The city is proposing that those cuts be continued for next year.
“Basically, our focus this year was trying to maintain what we’re doing currently without reducing further,” Ryan Davidson, the city’s budget analyst, told planning commissioners at a meeting last week.
The Planning Commission was getting an early look at the fiscal 2014 capital budget, which won’t be finalized until early next year. The capital budget, or capital improvement program, is used to plan for facility and transportation projects that cost more than $50,000.
Next year’s budget is subject to change depending on revenue projections and modifications requested by the Planning Commission or the City Council.
But officials are restrained by the fact that the city can only borrow so much money.
Much of the revenue for the capital budget comes from city-issued bonds. The city pays down some of its debt with each year’s budget, but a city fiscal policy dictates that the debt payment can’t exceed 8 percent of the budget. As proposed, next year’s capital budget would put the city at the “very top” of that limit, according to budget officials.
“We are very concerned about a larger CIP [Capital Improvement Program] without an identified source of additional revenue to pay for it,” states a memo from the city budget office.
The debt constraints help to explain the city’s modest list of new projects for next year.
After the Whole Foods Market relocated to the city, residents of Michie Drive pushed for a new traffic light that would make it easier for them to get out of the neighborhood without having to wait for an opening in frequently snarled traffic on Hydraulic Road.
The control system for the Belmont sprayground currently lies in an underground pit prone to flooding, which causes problems with some features. The capital funding would be used to replace the entire system and house it above ground.
The high school, dating to 1974, was built at a time when sprinklers were not mandatory, but the sprinklers would be required if the high school were built today, according to a city memo. Over two years, the total costs to install the sprinklers would come to about $1.1 million.
Capital funding previously scheduled for next year includes $240,000 to repair the crumbling retaining wall around Lee Park; $125,000 to replace the fire department’s portable radios; and $50,000 to start planning improvements to the streetscape that connects the old Martha Jefferson Hospital site with the Downtown Mall.
Though the city is still able to fund basic upkeep and some immediate needs, grander projects are being pushed further into the future.
The middle-school reconfiguration project would not get funding until fiscal 2018, when the budget calls for $750,000 to pay for design work.
Money to fund the planned overhaul to McIntire Park was scheduled to start in next year’s budget, but that would be pushed to fiscal 2015 under the proposed capital plan.
At last week’s meeting, questions from planning commissioners were focused largely on specific details about the increasingly tight budget.
Commissioner Lisa Green asked why funding for bicycle infrastructure was listed at $100,000 after getting $200,000 in the current budget.
“I don’t think that’s accurate,” Green said. “… I think it was supposed to go up, not down by $100,000.”
Commissioner John Santoski, who noted that he’s been involved in the capital planning process for a few years, said it’s always interesting to see which projects get money and which don’t, because there are competing priorities among various city interests.
“At the end of the day, it’s who squeaks the loudest that gets funded,” Santoski said. “If I sound a little pessimistic it’s just, the more you learn about it, the more you realize that what’s important isn’t always necessarily what’s funded. It’s whose priority is most important on that day and time.”
The city budget office will continue to finalize the proposed capital plan before presenting it to the City Council in March along with the operating budget. Councilors will approve both in April.