First of all, kudos to the design team for keeping costs down when Western Albemarle High School was retrofitted with additional science labs as its share of improvements from a bond referendum.
That careful management is the reason school officials now find themselves with an “extra” $400,000 that they want to use for new and replacement parking.
Supervisor Diantha McKeel sees a drawback, however. If county residents think the money was left over because the bond amount was too extravagant, they might be less likely to approve a bond issue the next time it is requested.
Albemarle has raised tax rates to help pay down the debt incurred from the issue of construction bonds. The need for higher tax rates was made clear before the bond issue was put to a referendum in 2016, and a majority of voters approved it with that understanding.
Still, the imposition of higher tax rates is a burden for many taxpayers, especially those on fixed incomes — and especially when they come on top of increases in tax assessments, which also raise residents’ final tax bills.
To learn that $400,000 wasn’t spent as originally anticipated — even if that amount is a small percentage of the full $35 million bond package — might cause some taxpayers to question the wisdom of the bond issue.
“I’m not in favor of using the bond money, the $400,000, for more parking,” Ms. McKeel said. “Let’s figure out the problem another way.”
The county attorney said using the money for parking would be within the scope of the bond issue. That makes a certain amount of sense: WAHS lost 32 parking spaces when the science labs were added; school officials propose to replace them, and add 23 more.
Ms. McKeel still worries about voters’ perception of such a move.
We understand and share that concern. In addition to a perception of extravagance by county government, many taxpayers feel as if Albemarle is making decisions without them. Any decision, even a relatively small one, that adds to that perception of lack of transparency could cause big problems.
Meanwhile, the county should consider a couple of other issues.
If the money shouldn’t go toward school parking, what should it be used for? What options would be permitted under the legal constraints of the bond issue?
Whatever those options might be, now that Ms. McKeel has raised a concern, officials would be wise to provide county residents with plenty of information and plenty of time to respond if they wished. Perhaps residents even might accept the parking proposal if they were given the chance to vet it.
Officials — and residents — also need to consider the message they might be sending to project designers and others. If saving $400,000 from a project is going to be so troublesome, project managers might decide next time to avoid that problem and just go ahead and spend the money.
Instead, county officials should find a solution that incentivizes savings, for all concerned.
It is right for project designers and managers to save money when unexpected opportunities arise to do so. It is also right for county officials to consider taxpayers’ opinions when deciding how to spend this, or any, windfall.