A study of Albemarle County’s local government operations has yielded a number of recommendations to boost revenue while also suggesting that the County continue to find ways to work with the City. The study was requested by the Board of Supervisors in May 2008 .

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The study was conducted by the Commonwealth Educational Policy Institute (CEPI), a division of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University. The same group also studied the County’s school division and was already familiar with Albemarle County government operations.

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Lane Ramsey of CEPI presented the results of the study to the Board of Supervisors during their meeting on February 11, 2009. Ramsey served for more than 20 years as the Chesterfield County Administrator.

The study compared Albemarle’s tax rate to that of other peer communities in Virginia. The number in parenthesis is the County’s tax rate when revenue sharing is not taken into consideration

“We were very, very impressed with what we found here in Albemarle County,” Ramsey said. He said it was important for the study to communicate what County government was doing well. Ramsey lauded the County for “taking the risk” of doing citizen satisfaction surveys and for, having a “relatively low tax rate” compared to other communities in Virginia. Other positives include the County’s AAA-bond rating, growth-management policies, and a strong business tax base.

“We looked at your mix of residential versus commercial and industrial tax base and you’ve been very steady for the past 10 years at 13%,” Ramsey said. He said this was unusual given the sharp climb in residential assessments over the same period.

However, despite the positives, Ramsey said CEPI came up with about 140 recommendations for the County to improve the efficiency of its operation. Here are some of the highlights:

Supervisor Sally Thomas (Samuel Miller) asked why the County should boost economic development given that the County’s tax base is 13% business-based. Ramsey responded that the County is currently not meeting several of its citizens’ expectations in the realm of public safety, and additional revenues could help bridge the gap.

Supervisor Dennis Rooker (Jack Jouett) asked Ramsey if he envisioned a full merger of City and County parks, or if sharing services would yield any performance gains.

“We’ve added in the last 6 or 7 years, over 1,800 acres of park in the County,” Rooker said. “I don’t know if the City is interested in taking on the cost of developing and making improvements to make those parks fully functional.” Supervisor Ken Boyd (Rivanna) said that the City and County have been working together, and reminded Rooker that both jurisdictions operate Darden-Towe Park.

Supervisor Lindsay Dorrier (Scottsville) asked Ramsey if CEPI’s study addressed the University of Virginia in any way. Ramsey said it did not directly address UVA, but did look at the joint public safety dispatching facility to which UVA contributes. Ramsey did warn against putting too much emphasis on the role UVA plays in economic development.

“Our team did not feel that you should be depending solely on the University of Virginia,” Ramsey said. “We believe you have other opportunities for economic development as well. You are a community that companies and people want to come to. You’re in a position to be selective.”

Lane Ramsey of CEPI

Rooker also asked Ramsey for his opinion on whether the County should encourage more retail development versus office development. Ramsey responded that in the short-term, retail development generates revenue from sales tax. However, retail jobs tend to not pay very much. Rooker noted that more than 2 million square feet of retail space have been approved in the past several years. Ramsey said his recommendations on economic development would aid the County for whatever is needed when the economy rebounds.

“We would suggest to that you look at all aspects of developments,” Ramsey said. He specifically singled out industrial parks with access to transportation.

Rooker asked if any of the other recommendations would result in saving more money. Ramsey said that the County could stream-line the way in which a rezoning comes through the Department of Community Development.

At the conclusion of Ramsey’s presentation, County Executive Bob Tucker asked for time for staff to prepare a list of items that the Board could act on. He said he hoped to have it ready in time for next month when the Board will be reviewing the budget for FY2010.

Sean Tubbs