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Albemarle residents call for county to provide attorneys in eviction hearings
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Albemarle residents call for county to provide attorneys in eviction hearings

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The Albemarle County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday said it wants more information before deciding whether to allocate funds to provide attorneys to tenants in eviction proceedings.

During a public hearing on the proposed Fiscal Year 2022 budget, two community members asked supervisors to fund a right-to-counsel program for county residents facing eviction.

Unlike in Charlottesville’s budget process, where funding for legal support for community members facing eviction had been a topic of discussion, funds for a program in Albemarle have not been discussed.

“I am here today to ask that as you move forward in the budget process, you commit to providing funding for a right-to-counsel program in coordination with the city,” said Lydia Brunk, who lives in the Samuel Miller District. “... Not to come on too strong, but I do like living in the county and I don’t want to be the backwards neighbor of Charlottesville that doesn’t take the necessary steps to prevent an eviction crisis.”

Last month a nationwide eviction moratorium by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was again extended to June 30.

“We are looking at a crisis on our hands when the protections tenants do currently have expire,” Brunk said. “A right-to-counsel is crucial for our community.”

Javier Raudales, also a Samuel Miller District resident, said an eviction crisis can quickly become a homeless crisis.

“With the right-to-counsel we not only ensure tenants understand their rights, we can also create an incentive for landlords to negotiate,” he said.

Charlottesville is looking at funding a program with American Rescue Plan money and the Legal Aid Justice Center being tapped to host the city’s program.

Supervisors asked county staff to provide more information. Supervisor Liz Palmer asked the county attorney to comment at some point on the situation.

“I would like to know a little bit more — is the city doing this, has there been any financial requests made there, but what exactly does this entail,” she said.

The proposed budget projects about $466 million in revenue and expenditures for capital and operational costs, and is about 17.4% larger than the current adopted budget. It also includes no tax rate increase.

During public hearings on the proposed budget and tax rate, former School Board member Gary Grant asked a number of questions, including why the budget was a 17.4% increase over the current fiscal year and why the board was willing to spend budget surplus money on government employee bonuses, instead of returning money to taxpayers.

He also asked why the board didn’t lower the real estate tax rate to the effective tax rate.

Under the proposal, the real estate tax rate remains 85.4 cents per $100 of assessed value. The latest reassessment of county real estate represented an average increase of 1.4%.

Though the tax rate is not projected to increase, average growth in property values means that some property owners will see higher tax bills.

Because of increased property assessments, the effective real estate tax rate — the rate that would levy the same amount of revenue as last year — would be 84.2 cents per $100 of assessed value.

Andy Bowman, Albemarle’s chief of budget, said there were a number of reasons that the budget increased from last year’s adopted budget, including that funding for capital projects was much lower in the current year’s budget due to the pandemic and some of the current fiscal year revenue projections were “more pessimistic than things actually turned out to be.”

“Revenues are certainly impacted — when we look at things like meals tax and transient occupancy tax, they are below where we were in the prior year,” he said. “The impact has not been as significant as we thought it would be about 12 months ago. So part of the revenue increase we’re seeing is not just the growth that is projected to occur next year, but the growth that is happening from the lower starting point at the start of Fiscal Year 2021.”

Board Chairman Ned Gallaway said the answer to “why that tax rate” is in the budget book.

“It’s in the salaries that we pay, it’s in the positions that we choose ... it’s in the capital projects that we determined that we’re going to pursue, it’s in the strategic plan that’s how we prioritize what we’re going to spend those dollars on,” he said. “... It’s in our budget book, how we program the spending of those dollars is the answer to ‘why that tax rate.’”

Supervisor Ann H. Mallek said she’s also gotten questions about the bonuses.

“I think the majority or at least half of the years I’ve been on the board, there have been no raises for many, many different reasons, because of efforts to survive the recession, and for the board to be as conservative as possible,” she said.

She said there’s also a disruption of operations, productivity and service to the community when the county loses experienced staff to other employers.

“I think this bonus is an important stopgap to keep our workforce together as much as we can, and we all benefit from their continued service,” Mallek said.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to approve a budget and set the tax rate during its regular meeting May 5.

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