Facing $6m budget hit, city council makes cuts to education, public safety and public works

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

The city of Harrisonburg expects to take a hit of about $6 million in the next fiscal year that begins July 1, mostly in lost revenue from local taxes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the Harrisonburg City Council unanimously approved an amended budget that reduces spending for schools, public safety and public works. 

“This is a projection of shortfall. We hope we don’t have to come back to you, but of course this is a work in progress,” City Manager Eric Campbell said.

The cuts amount to $5.1 million, which could have been even deeper had the Harrisonburg Electric Commission not made a one-time additional payment of $1.5 million to the city’s budget. Campbell said that additional payment will “assist us” beyond the $5.2 million the HEC was already set to contribute.

To address the $5.1 million deficit, the council trimmed the budgets of multiple agencies. But the major budget items affected include:

  • $1.1 million cut from education transfers. While it did not include specifics, a memo from Campbell’s office said “staff consulted with Harrisonburg City School staff regarding the decrease in school operating funding.” That funding, which also covers school bus operations, represents the largest single budget item for the city. With the cuts, the city will provide $36 million to the city public schools, which is still a slight increase over the $35.8 million from this current fiscal year’s budget. 
  • About $761,000 from public works, including a $604,000 decrease to highway and street maintenance and $114,000 decrease to traffic engineering.
  • About $738,000 from public safety, including a $467,000 decrease to police administration and $154,000 to fire suppression.

The council didn’t discuss defunding the Police Department, which some people protesting racial injustice have suggested. 

In all, the Fiscal Year 2021 general fund budget will now be $118.4 million, down from the council’s previously-approved $123.5 million general fund budget — which doesn’t include water and sewer, for instance. The general fund reductions approved Tuesday amount to about a 4.1% cut. 

The city is still looking to receive funds from the federal CARES Act, which Parks previously told The Citizen could come to approximately $4.6 million. Those funds will need to be spent by December 31. 

Campbell told the council that his staff are “combing through the requests from various departments” and will allocate those funds based on federal guidelines and the departments’ level of need.

Council speaks on protests, police oversight

Council member Chris Jones opened the meeting with praise for local residents working to repair the harms of racial injustice.

“I hope that we as a community continue to work together. The work has just started,” Jones said.

Mayor Deanna Reed requested that Police Chief Eric English attend the next council meeting on June 23 to answer questions – such as to what extent restorative justice is implemented in the local justice system, whether the city has an active restorative justice committee and the possibility of instituting a community justice review board. 

“We’re here to listen to our citizens, and when they want answers, that’s our job to give it to them,” Reed said.

“What are we doing when it comes to mental health, when it comes to things that are outside of traditional police work, that they’re not experts in?” Jones asked. There may be some responsibilities “that we can extract from the police department” and give to other experts, he said, to avoid “over-policing and militarizing.”

English will be among the panelists participating Wednesday at 7 p.m.  in a virtual town hall called “Rethinking Policing and Building Community Trust.” The town hall, hosted by JMU’s Madison Center for Civic Engagement, will be streamed on Facebook Live to allow for community participation. 

Reed also said local residents have asked about the city’s relationship to the monument of Confederate general Turner Ashby, located off of Neff Avenue.

City attorney Chris Brown said the monument and property it sits on are privately owned by chapter 162 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and, thus, are outside the council’s authority. The lane leading up to the monument is owned and maintained by the city.

Also at the meeting:

  • Reed announced another round of free, drive-through COVID-19 testing open to all on Thursday from 2-6 p.m at the corner of Duke Drive and Paul Street.
  • Vice-mayor Sal Romero said he planned to bring a resolution before the council later this month, advocating for mandatory and enforceable safety standards at the state level “for all workers in the state of Virginia … we have many factories in our community, many workers who definitely need those protections” in the face of COVID-19.
  • Tom Hartman, director of public works, announced that later in June, parts of Federal Street between Newman Avenue and Wolfe Street will be closed or altered to improve bicycle and pedestrian use. During the pandemic, the city has seen an estimated 50-60% decrease in vehicle traffic, he said, and an “uptick in bicycle and pedestrian activity.”
  • The council unanimously approved a supplemental appropriation of $2.3 million to purchase the former Pano’s property on South Main Street, to which they had previously committed to facilitate construction of the new high school.

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