Attracting and retaining employees is perhaps the biggest challenge for Albemarle County, Charlottesville and the University of Virginia, officials told the Charlottesville Regional Chamber of Commerce at its “State of the Community” event on Friday.
Leadership from three of the largest employers in the area spoke to the chamber at the Irving Theater in the new CODE building downtown, the venue’s first formal event since its completion.
All three entities touched on their workforces during the three-hour long event.
Albemarle County Executive Jeff Richardson said the county’s greatest challenge is its ability to be able to hire talented people and keep talented people with the resources it has.
“When people come here and they move here, they have high expectations,” he said. “They want to guard what drove them to be here, and so we’ve got to be able, as a local government, to maintain a high quality of life. That means so many different things to so many different people.”
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Charlottesville’s new interim city manager Michael C. Rogers said he wants to return to a “no drama” environment in city government. Similar to county leadership, Rogers wants to focus on attaining and retaining a quality workforce.
He said staff has expressed low morale, which he says is unsurprising due to a lack of stability and high leadership turnover in the city’s government.
“What I’ve found is an organization that has had some challenges, but the people I’ve met I think bring a lot of talent to the city,” Rogers said. “I’ve been impressed by the experience that I’ve seen with people. And I want to find the way to harness that power and that experience to be the best organization for the citizens of Charlottesville.”
UVa President James E. Ryan said attracting good employees is easier if they can afford to live in the area, which has seen skyrocketing housing and rental costs since the pandemic began in 2020.
He said there are efforts ongoing in both Charlottesville and Albemarle to increase the supply of affordable housing, and that the university has an obligation to contribute.
“If you want to attract and retain a talented workforce, you need to make sure that there are places where people can live affordably,” he said. “So, if you care about attracting and retaining teachers, or police officers, or nurses or staff at the medical center generally, we need to make sure that there are places not too far away from where people work where they can live.”
The university is working on a plan to create 1,000 to 1,500 affordable housing units over the next decade on land owned by UVa or the UVa Foundation.
Three UVa properties are being eyed for the housing, but other specifics, such as target income levels and type of homes that will be available, have not yet been announced. Those properties are at the corner of Wertland Street and 10th Street NW, near downtown Charlottesville and the UVa Medical Center; the existing UVa-owned Piedmont Housing off of Fontaine Avenue, near Jefferson Park Avenue; and portions of the university’s North Fork industrial park near the Charlottesville Albemarle Airport.
When asked if there is a plan to require second year students to live on Grounds, Ryan said he would like to see that happen.
“The motivation for having students live on grounds for both their first and their second year is [to give t hem] even more time to take advantage of the fact that most of them are in the most diverse communities they’ve ever been in,” he said. “How we do that and when we do that is still under discussion.”
Ryan said the university has housing for upper class students but doesn’t have enough to house all the second year students. When asked if that could help with affordable housing in the city, he said it’s basic supply and demand.
“There’s a limited amount of housing that is in the range that’s affordable for students, and if students are in housing that we construct on Grounds, that means housing that they were occupied will be available for others,” he said.
Budgets and taxes were also on the worry list. Going into the county’s fiscal year 2023 budget process, the county’s economic indicators are “pretty strong,” Richardson said. Consumer-driven revenues are up approximately 17% from what the county initially projected for the current fiscal year, and business-driven revenues are up about 3%.
But there are also challenges. The number of recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – colloquially called food stamps – is up 8.4% in the county compared to pre-pandemic numbers and tourism hasn’t yet come back to pre-pandemic levels, Richardson said.
Richardson will present his recommended budget to the Board of Supervisors on Feb. 23. He would not yet say if he is recommending a real estate tax rate increase.
Rogers said the city’s number one priority in the coming weeks and months is the budget. “It’s not going to be an easy feat,” he said. “There are challenges, there are needs. And you have to figure out the priorities with the council, how you can meet those priorities with the resources you have. We need to have a robust conversation about the needs in this community.”
Rogers expressed that he is conservative about spending public money and that community members can trust he will make financial decisions that are in the city’s best interest. He said he’s received a lot of feedback from constituents concerned about the city’s advertised potential 10-cent real estate tax rate increase.
He emphasized that the rate is still only a possibility and that it may not rise that much. Council will make the final decision and some councilors have said they do not support the full tax rate hike.
With city and county income plus taxes a concern, one audience member asked if UVa will consider making payments in lieu of taxes to the city and the county. UVa is exempt from paying real estate taxes.
City Councilor Michael Payne has brought up the idea, often called PILOT, during city council meetings and on social media as a “non-regressive revenue source.”
The UVa Foundation, which is technically a separate entity, owns and operates numerous properties in the area, and also does pay real estate taxes on those properties.
UVa receives millions of dollars in private donations, many of which are earmarked for specific uses, and it receives millions of dollars in state funds for operations.
“There are likely restrictions on our ability to do this because we’re a state agency so there are all sorts of restrictions on what we can do with our state funds,” Ryan said. “Because we’re a state agency, when we receive money from Richmond, it’s money that they’re delegating to us, and whether we could turn around and delegate that or allocate to a locality seems unlikely to me.”
Colette Sheehy, the university’s senior vice president for operations and state government relations, said she thinks people in the community don’t realize what the university already contributes to the community.
“Maybe we should find a way to educate people about that a little bit because we do contribute in a lot of ways,” she said.