Credit: Albemarle County

Albemarle County is just about a month into its current fiscal year, but staff already has begun planning the process to prepare for the next budget cycle.

At its meeting earlier this week, the Board of Supervisors agreed to communicate the next fiscal year’s real estate tax rate expectation by November, but keep the budget calendar similar to previous years.

“As we put forward this budget calendar together, it’s kind of like a puzzle because you have to think about your work sessions and think about the timing of when you meet,” said Lori Allshouse, the county’s budget director.

Virginia law regulates how and when localities advertise the real property tax rate for the next fiscal year. If property assessments are expected to increase by greater than 1 percent, counties must advertise the maximum highest rate it might adopt 30 days before approving a budget. Albemarle must adopt a budget by April 15.

Spring break for the coming school year will be April 6-10.

“Those legal deadlines can sometimes line it up so that it can hit on spring break and affect people who are out of town and would like to come to the public hearing,” Allshouse said.

To speed up the process for next year, county staff asked if supervisors would consider advertising a rate in early February. However, they would have to do so before County Executive Tom Foley releases his recommended budget.

“As you set that maximum rate, you can go under it, but you can’t go over it,” Allshouse said.

Allshouse said that if supervisors don’t set a maximum tax rate until March, they likely will have to have separate public hearings on the tax rate and the budget during the first two weeks of April.

However, a majority of supervisors said that was too early, but that they could informally set tax rate expectations when they update the five-year financial plan in November. That document is a nonbinding forecast that allows supervisors to prepare for future needs, such as a multimillion-dollar court renovation or relocation project.

“I can’t imagine you’d come in with a budget that’s dramatically different from the five-year planning effort unless there was something out of your control,” said Supervisor Brad Sheffield.

Supervisor Kenneth C. Boyd agreed.

“Why don’t we put more emphasis on an acceptable rate to the majority of the board in the five-year planning process, which gives [staff] better direction and doesn’t separate us,” Boyd said.

Supervisor Diantha McKeel said she has been trying to educate her constituents about the role the five-year plan plays in the budget process.

“I would like to try our new five-year process and how we change things with the School Board before we get into changing this time to February,” McKeel said.

Allshouse said that would mean the board will continue to have a very compressed budget cycle.

“On a Thursday, you’d have the budget provided to you, and you’d have a public hearing on the Monday night,” Allshouse said. “The very next day you’d have a work session and then on Wednesday you’d have another work session.”

Supervisors said they were OK with that timetable.

In the coming years, supervisors will have to decide how to pay for additional measures to meet more-stringent water quality goals mandated by state and federal environmental agencies.

Foley said supervisors approved a theoretical 0.7-cent increase in the last five-year plan to cover additional inspections and other steps the county needs to take to meet Virginia Department of Environmental Quality guidelines. He said he likely will recommend that increase until supervisors decide whether to proceed with a stormwater fee.

This year, supervisors and the School Board will set five-year goals in October.

“The school division involvement would be increased in that process this year,” Allshouse said. There also will be greater public engagement during the process.