Harrisonburg City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to keep the real estate tax rate at 86 cents per $100 of assessed value, but also to hold a public hearing on May 25 to increase the rate by 4 cents when the new fiscal year begins July 1.
The 4-cent increase would help staff secure the bond to resume construction on the paused HHS2 project. However, further tax increases would be necessary in coming years to pay for the entire project, which is now estimated to cost $112 million. The project’s price has risen roughly $7 million due to increased material costs, according to Michael Richards, Harrisonburg City Public Schools superintendent.
Though City Council members had discussed a 4-cent increase to the real estate tax in previous meetings, City Attorney Chris Brown advised them not to vote on it Tuesday because the city didn’t advertise the rate increase or have a public hearing on it.
“My concern is that it may not be valid. And if we get challenged, it could play out over months and months,” Brown said.
Local governments are required to advertise tax rate increases and hold public hearings before they can be approved. Likewise, Harrisonburg was required to hold a public hearing to keep its rate flat this year, because property assessments increased more than 1% compared to the previous fiscal year.
In Harrisonburg, this year’s property value assessments increased a net 2.9% across the city, not accounting for new construction or property improvements, according to documents. This increase translates to another roughly $1.1 million for city coffers in fiscal year 2021-22, according to documents.
Because City Council took action on the real estate tax rate, it only needs to advertise a public hearing on the tax for seven days instead of 30 days, which is the typical amount of time localities are required to advertise for such a public hearing, according Virginia code.
City Council also approved the first reading of the proposed $293 million budget, which does not include funding to resume construction on HHS2 or capital expansion projects for Middle River Regional Jail.
A second vote is slated for May 25.
In other business, City Council supported two requests for developments endorsed by the Planning Commission.
Farhad Koyee, Bahar Mikael and Akarr Koyee were granted a rezoning and a special-use permit for a mixed-use business and residential property and parking lot at 907 N. Main St. The 17,206-square-foot site is vacant. Koyee, one of the owners of Fast Lane Auto Tech on the adjacent parcel, called into the April Planning Commission meeting and said the building would include 10 or 15 affordable studio apartments, offices and retail space. The other project is 29-unit town house development at 107 and 137 Vine St. from the James K. Strawderman estate. The proposed development would be on a roughly 2.25-acre vacant lot, which will be subdivided.
In another unanimous action, City Council approved staff’s plan for federal Community Development Block Grant funding for infrastructure projects in the Northeast neighborhood; Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority renovations; city administrative costs; and four local nonprofits.
At the end of the meeting, Councilman Sal Romero said he has received comments from the public about student athletes being required to wear masks while playing sports. He said continuing the practice does not seem to make sense with the increased understanding of how COVID-19 spreads, other local communities not doing it and the inconsistency of the practice. He cited restaurants, where masks are removed for extended periods of time indoors, as an example.
“I am all about safety of those playing sports in our community, but it really doesn’t align with what I’m seeing other communities are doing, as well as within the city,” Romero said.
Mayor Deanna Reed said she and elected leaders of the other localities that make up the Middle River Regional Jail Authority have been meeting and came up with three objectives on how to address the overcrowding and improve the facility without a large expansion.