Hot topics like the revenue-sharing agreement with Charlottesville, the stormwater utility fee and real estate taxes were discussed at the Senior Statesmen’s Albemarle County Board of Supervisors candidate forum.
The two White Hall District candidates incumbent Democrat Ann H. Mallek and Republican Steve Harvey, as well as Scottsville District Democratic candidate Donna Price were at The Center, formerly the Senior Center, for the Wednesday afternoon event.
The candidates answered written questions from the audience, which included topics such as working with the city and how to not increase taxes.
When asked about which services could and should be consolidated with the city, candidates talked about the revenue-sharing agreement with the city.
The revenue-sharing agreement was approved by referendum in 1982 in a deal to prevent the city from annexing valuable county land, requiring the county to share some of the revenue generated by that land with Charlottesville. Albemarle recently has paid the city about $16 million annually.
A statewide moratorium on annexation was put in place in 1987 and has been renewed multiple times, most recently until 2024.
“Unlike some people on my side of the aisle, I do think that there is a place for a revenue-sharing agreement between the city and the county,” said Harvey.
He said there are some services, like emergency services, that could be combined.
"We don't need a SWAT team in the county and in the city, they don't need multiple helipads for helicopters doing emergency medical services, the training facilities that some of the emergency services use,” he said.
Harvey said, however, that the revenue-sharing agreement needs to be renegotiated and that supervisors should be “pushing the state representatives to allow in-perpetuity contracts to be renegotiated every 10 years.”
Price said that a number of things should be consolidated. She said she was recently asked if she would support a lawsuit to have the agreement overturned.
“I said, 'no,'" she said. "That agreement's been in place for over 30 years. If there was a legal basis for challenging it in court, someone would have already done that, and I am not willing to expend endless sums of taxpayer money on frivolous lawsuits that have no chance of success."
Mallek said every incoming supervisor has investigated this process, adding that she worked with Del. R. Steven Landes, R-Augusta, on his bill, but it ended up not being as strong as they had wanted.
Landes in 2018 had a bill pass that all localities that are recipients of funding via so-called growth-sharing agreements will prepare an annual report on how the money is used.
On Monday, the city presented the county with that report.
“I, personally, am not satisfied that the information provided by the city did meet the spirit of the law that was passed last year because it was all very general and, again, shows that county revenue is being used to provide services for city people that county people then have to pay for again,” Mallek said.
An audience member asked what could be done about real estate tax increases in the future.
Mallek said that after the recession, county staff positions were cut and capital projects went unfunded.
“We are now crawling our way back out of that deficit, where we did not provide the infrastructure that our community needs for that period of time,” she said.
She said the increase this calendar year was approved with the bond referendum in 2016.
“We should have put it on right then,” she said of the increase.
Harvey said that when real estate taxes are increased, “something is not being managed properly,” and that this past year, many had their assessments increase and in addition to the rate increase.
“The rate increase is the particularly pernicious part in my mind, because that tells me that there aren't enough businesses paying taxes,” he said. “If population goes up, if there are businesses opening with that population, you won't need to increase the property tax rate because there will be people paying taxes for their business that they’re conducting.”
He said “regulations are restricting the economic flow of this county.”
Price said the county needs to look at the types of things that need to be provided in the urban ring when budgeting.
“I go back to three things — educated population, financial stability and physical security — and those are the three things that our tax dollars should primarily be going for,” she said.
She said the school system, economic development, local jobs and emergency services should be the focus in the budget.
When asked if the candidates would sign a pledge to oppose a stormwater utility fee — derisively called a “rain tax” by opponents — Harvey said he would.
“I'm not just a yes on that pledge, I'm a heck yes,” he said. “Absolutely no rain tax.”
After multiple delays, in April 2018, the Board of Supervisors decided to fund the county’s water resources program out of the budget instead of through a stormwater utility fee. An official vote was not taken.
Mallek said the county was trying to find a funding mechanism to carry out the stormwater work that the county needed to begin, but during that process, two things developed.
“One was that the grand majority of the work was going to be done in the urban ring, and two, the grand majority of the money was going to come from the rural area,” she said. “The basic unfairness of that, once it became apparent, put a knife into the heart of the project.”
She said once rural property owners started to find out the fee they would be charged and came to her town halls, “it made it very clear to me that the formula was not going to work for rural-area properties.”
“The one great benefit of this whole process, despite the pain, is that all of the members of the public who were concerned about the funding mechanism all agree that the work needed to be done, and that is what we're doing now, paying for it out of the general fund,” she said.
Price said the county should focus on sustainability and protecting the environment.
“I don't agree with the way the rain tax was proposed as I understand it, but I'm not going to go so far as to give you a pledge or a vow that I will fight against any environmental regulations that come up in the future,” she said.
Later, Harvey claimed that this election is “a referendum on whether or not the rain tax comes forward in some other form.”
In a Facebook post Wednesday, Scottsville District Republican candidate Mike Hallahan, an attorney, said he was not able to attend the forum because he “had multiple court appearances.”
Candidate Bea LaPisto Kirtley won the Democratic primary for the Rivanna District seat, which is also up for election, in June. Mike Johnson recently announced that he is seeking the Rivanna District seat as a write-in candidate.
Current Rivanna District Supervisor Norman Dill and Current Scottsville District Supervisor Rick Randolph, both Democrats, are not seeking reelection. The election is Nov. 5.