Justice planner included in proposed city budget that will get a public hearing at tonight’s council meeting

By Andrew Jenner

A tiny fraction of the proposed $274 million city budget amounts to a big deal for community groups that have been calling for reforms in the local criminal justice system. City Manager Eric Campbell’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2020, beginning July 1, includes $40,000 to help create a new justice planner position funded by both the city and Rockingham County. A matching $40,000 is included in county’s proposed budget for next year.

“We’re very pleased that the leaders of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County prioritized a justice planner in their budget proposals,” said Jennifer Davis Sensenig, president of Faith in Action.

The group, along with the Valley Justice Coalition and the Northeast Neighborhood Association, have for months been publicly calling for the city and county – which jointly fund the local courts, the prosecutor’s office and the jail – to hire a planner to help guide decision-making on local criminal justice spending and policy.

“Because incarceration is expensive, a planner position will help us identify what is working well locally, what needs tweaking, and where we can make changes to improve and strengthen our community in terms of public safety and wise fiscal management,” Sensenig continued. “By analyzing data and reviewing local justice system practices, a planner can help our community begin reducing rates of both incarceration and recidivism.”

The proposed city budget will be the subject of a public hearing at tonight’s council meeting with a second public hearing slated for May 14.

Campbell told The Citizen he included the city’s half of a justice planner position in his budget proposal because of apparent “clear consensus that there was interest in it” from the city council and the general public.

The county board of supervisors is expected to vote on its proposed budget, including its half of funding for the position on April 24, said County Administrator Stephen King. If both the city and county ultimately approve it, funding for the position would begin July 1, although Campbell noted that numerous details, such as the job description and placement within the city’s – or county’s – organizational chart remain to be decided.

While the inclusion of a new justice planner in next year’s local governments’ budgets is welcome news for some in the community, it’s also generated skepticism. Calling proponents of the change “wonderfully well-intentioned,” local attorney Gene Hart said there is “absolutely no need for a criminal justice planner in this community” because one already exists: Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst.

“In her directions to her assistants, she determines who goes to jail, even more than the judges,” Hart said. “I’m not saying she’s doing a bad job. I’m not saying she’s got wrong policies. What I’m telling you is, she is the one who drives that.”

Hart said the decisions and underlying policy made by the local prosecutor – elected every four years and up for reelection this fall – will remain the fundamental drivers of local incarceration rates, with or without a separate justice planner making recommendations to the wider body of decision-makers who play roles in the criminal justice system.

Proposed budget includes 1-cent real estate tax increase

At tonight’s meeting, city council will hold the first of two public hearings required prior to adoption of a budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The $274.4 million proposal presented earlier this month by Campbell represents a 5.6 percent increase from the current budget, and includes a one-cent increase to the real estate tax rate. That would bring the real estate tax rate to $.86 per $100 in assessed value. Although the tax rate did not change last year, it rose each of the four previous years from $.63 per $100 in assessed value in FY13.

The budget proposal includes a 3 percent raise for staff and fully funds the city schools’ budget request, according to summary documents provided by the city.

“Mr. Campbell presented a solid budget. I didn’t see anything too alarming in it,” said Mayor Deanna Reed. “We knew pretty much what was coming our way. We knew there would be a possible tax increase. We knew that there were some capital projects that needed to be done, and we knew that the school funding would be in there as well.”

“I think the fact that he’s only increasing it a penny – I can live with that,” Reed added.

George Hirschmann, the lone independent serving with four Democrats on council, also spoke favorably of the proposed budget, saying that he’s willing to support the one-cent tax rate increase and is confident that the budget adequately balances the city’s many competing needs.

Hirschmann added that he’s preparing for larger tax increases in the future when construction begins on the second high school. (The 2020 budget proposal includes some money for the land purchase for the new high school, but no funding for construction).

“It’s not something that I’m very happy with, but it might be something that I’ll have to live with,” Hirschmann said.

School Board Chair Deb Fitzgerald and Reed both acknowledged the possibility of additional tax increases in coming years to fund school construction, but they said it’s too early to put estimates to that before school’s final cost has been determined. The board is still vetting contractors’ bids.

“We know that we need to build a second high school,” Reed said. “I support that … We have been talking about this for a couple of years, and so I think we have gotten to the point where we just can’t talk about it anymore.”

Mindful of the potential for continued tax increases, Reed said she hopes to see the new school built “at an expense that everyone in the city can live with.”

In a statement first circulated nearly two years ago when planning for the new high school began, Fitzgerald described its construction as “a core infrastructure investment not only in our children, but in our long-term economic development as a city.”

“City residents pay for city services, and cities that are growing as fast as Harrisonburg will inevitably require more services for more people,” she wrote. “We all benefit directly and indirectly from living in a city, even from services we don’t directly use — though we pay for fire trucks and EMS, we hope we never need them. Good schools attract families and businesses to the city and expand the tax base.”

Sustainability coordinator left out

In total, the proposed budget includes six new positions: four directly within various city departments and two shared positions with the county, including the new justice planner.

Campbell said he left out at least six additional positions that had been formally requested by different departments, as well as a new sustainability coordinator position recommended by the city’s Environmental Performance Standards Advisory Committee, or EPSAC. Campbell said the cuts were simply part of the process of balancing requests with available resources.

EPSAC chair Deirdre Smeltzer said that council’s support last fall for the group’s preliminary recommendations, including a sustainability coordinator, led her and others to believe that the position was on a faster track than has turned out to be the case.

“Certainly time is of the essence in all sustainability efforts, so any delay is detrimental to the well-being of all,” Smeltzer said. “Having said that, I have appreciated the work of city staff on the Environmental Action Plan and acknowledge that they have gotten a lot done since last fall.”

A second hearing for the budget is planned for council’s May 14 meeting, along with a separate hearing on the proposed real estate tax rate increase. Reed said city council will likely hold an additional work session to discuss the budget after tonight’s initial public hearing.

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