The Harrisonburg City Council officially adopted its budget, discussed school funding and approved a speed camera ordinance at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Real estate tax increase, city budget
The council unanimously approved an increase to the real estate tax rate from $0.93 per $100 of assessed value to $0.96 per $100 of assessed value. This is the final of three tax rate increases planned to fund Rocktown High School.
This will create approximately $6.3 million in additional real estate tax revenue for 2023-24. City Manager Ande Banks explained that four years ago the city planned for an increase of $0.12 over two to three years, but due to decreases in borrowing after work with the school system and increased funds from the American Rescue Plan Act, the increase was only $0.10 over the last three years.
The council also unanimously voted to approve the 2023-24 budget, officially codifying it into law. The budget adopted by the city council will go into effect July 1.
Michael Richards, the superintendent of Harrisonburg City Public Schools, presented the proposed school budget for the 2023-24 school year. Rather than presenting the budget line by line, Richards opened the floor to the council members to ask questions.
Outcomes and involvement of Black and brown students and community members were a topic of discussion and questions from council members Chris Jones and Monica Robinson. Robinson said the lack of participation of Black and brown parents in the school system was an issue that occurred for multiple reasons, including a lack of relatability and cultural understanding.
“There’s obviously a disconnect from city council, disconnect from school board, disconnect from the systems, that you have to meet people where they are if you want them to look like who you are,” Jones said.
Richards pointed to diversity hiring efforts in HCPS, stating the school system was making a concerted effort to bring in more diverse and talented faculty and staff. Richards said the school system needs to make families of color feel welcome and is trying to do so by hiring diverse staff.
Included in the presentation explaining the budget were priorities for 2023-24, including increases to salary and benefits for staff, additional positions for student needs and state and federal mandates, planning and programming costs for the opening of Rocktown High School, investment in special education and English language learners and technology replacement and devices.
There are 28 new positions — equating to 22.5 full time equivalent positions, as not all of the positions are full time — included in the budget, including five positions for both Rocktown High School and Harrisonburg High School. Nine of the positions were for permanent substitutes, positions that Richards said were a staff-generated idea.
The state budget teacher pay increase is currently at 5%, but both the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates have proposed an additional 2% increase in revisions to the budget, which has yet to be approved. Richards said the budget plans for a 5% increase in pay for teachers, in an effort not to over promise pay increases.
Richards said any pay increases are only paid in half by the state and would need to be matched by the city. The state and federal governments have decreased the funding for schools in the last year, after increasing funding for the past two years or so.
“So what happens then is the localities then footing the bill, when this happens — when the state and the federal government don’t step up,” Richards said. “Virginia has been behind in education funding for a long, long time. And so at every meeting like this, across the Commonwealth, you’re going to hear a superintendent say to the city council, or board of supervisors that they’re falling behind and the state’s not really doing much about that right now.”
Richards said HCPS was awarded a $276,000 grant earmarked for improvements for HHS, but that many items included in the grant were “kicked out” and not included in the funding. Compared to other grant recipients, Richards said HCPS was on the lower end of money granted, but many other schools were given grants for projects included in capital improvement plans. The superintendent said the school would be going through an appeals process to ask for more funding.
In the total school system budget, roughly 75% of expenditures went toward instruction, with an almost 7% increase from 2023 to 2024. Richard said this includes anything in the classroom outside of furniture and technology.
Four other categories, including transportation and technology, fell between five and almost seven percent of total expenditures. The lowest proportion of the budget was facilities and infrastructure at 2.62% and debt services at less than 1%.
The budget showed a 7.29% increase — or $7,771,863 — in total expenditures from 2023 to 2024.
Speed monitoring devices
The council unanimously approved a photo speed camera ordinance for work and school zones.
The Harrisonburg Chief of Police Kelley Warner and Director of Public Works Thomas Hartman presented the ordinance and said it was an effort to keep those working in work zones safe.
The ordinance, section 13-1-27, would include single stationary cameras capturing vehicle registration only after a speed violation was committed. Warner said the city would solicit a private vendor to review the photo of the license plate following the violation, and the penalty would be a civil penalty, rather than criminal.
According to a city memo, the vendor would install and maintain the devices, identify speeding vehicles and be responsible for the collection of all fines after the evidence is reviewed by a Harrisonburg Police officer. After the fines are collected, the vendor would then provide the payment to the city.
Hartman said work zones would be kept at a 25 mph speed limit 24/7, but the tickets would only be issued when workers were occupying the workspace, which is typically from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. but can be shifted.
Warner explained that the implementation would begin June 15 with the installation of photo speed cameras, followed by a 60 day warning period. Citations would begin to be issued after August 15.
“We feel its important to do a very aggressive public announcements and an education period to tell folks in our area — that live, work and play in our community — let them know to slow down, because that’s the ultimate goal,” Warner said.
The cameras would start by being placed in the I-81 Exit 247 improvement project that is currently under construction. According to the memo, as additional construction projects begin, the city will perform additional studies to determine if other work zones would benefit.
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