By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor
Continue with the plan for building a second high school? Keep fully funding the public golf course? Contribute to more local organizations? Reduce funding for the police department?
The combination of the pandemic’s economic ripple effects and calls for social change out of this summer’s protests have sparked questions and deep-seated opinions about how the city of Harrisonburg spends its money. Residents have been bringing up budget issues in city council meetings, at rallies for racial justice and on social media.
“It’s hard to say that those are conversations about the city’s budget, though ultimately they are, and we have to find a way to balance that, as much as they are conversations about city topics and their costs,” said Michael Parks, the city’s director of communications, in an email to The Citizen.
What those conversations lack, he said, is the context of those expenses, including “their impact on the (city’s) tax rate, or having to cancel this to pay for that, or is my trash going to be collected next week.”
The city of Harrisonburg moves a lot of money in a year. Based on the budget amendment passed by the City Council in June, Harrisonburg will oversee $269.8 million in fiscal year 2021, in funds like those of the city schools, public safety department, and water and sewer utilities.
The Citizen breaks down some of the main components of the amended budget: what’s being spent where, and how it’s being funded.
So what’s Hburg’s big-picture public budget?
The city has different funds that function somewhat independently from one another.
The portion that city council has the most discretion in deciding how to spend is the general fund, which basically lays out how city tax dollars will be allocated. But the council votes on an overall city budget that includes other funds, such as:
- The school fund, a.k.a the school division’s operating budget, which is mostly spent on instruction. Revenue sources include money from the city’s general fund as well as state and federal funding;
- Separate funds for school nutrition and transportation (much of the school nutrition program funding, for instance, comes from federal dollars);
- Separate funds for water, sewer, sanitation and stormwater management (mostly from residents’ fees);
- Public transportation, which includes riders’ bus fares;
- Capital projects, which covers the cost of city construction projects many of which are paid for with bonds;
- And an amalgamation of smaller funds that cover costs, such as the Emergency Communications Center, which is a joint county-city initiative.
While the city council ultimately approves the Harrisonburg City Public Schools’ budget, the plan for how the district’s operating funds will be spent is first drafted and adopted by the Harrisonburg School Board.
How are our city tax dollars (the general fund) spent?
The city’s general fund is what the city council members spent so much time this spring debating, drafting and ultimately rewriting, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on businesses — and, thus, local tax revenue — became clearer.
And with the council’s discussions and revisions came a new wave of questions.
“We are lucky as a city that we do have an engaged citizenry that reaches out to us about the direction of our community and the issues that are most important to them,” Parks said. “And, as much as possible, we try to balance those needs with an understanding that there is only so much revenue to go around – never more so than right now when our biggest focus is on maintaining essential, core services despite COVID-19’s impact on local funding sources.”
Nevin Zehr is one of the local residents who’s spoken at in-person council meetings and called in to virtual public hearings on budget-related issues.
With this fiscal year’s budget, Zehr said he wants “to make sure the municipal government of Harrisonburg doesn’t use the COVID-19 crisis as an excuse to implement austerity.”
The city cut more than a million dollars in the city’s contribution to the schools’ operating budget this year as a result of pandemic-related revenue losses.
Still, the city is spending more out of the general fund on schools than anywhere else: $36 million, or 30.4% of the general fund.
The next largest expense, at $26.3 million, is for public safety, which includes the police and fire departments and the city’s payments to the Middle River Regional Jail, which serves and is paid for by Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro and Augusta and Rockingham Counties. (Below, is a breakout graph of Harrisonburg’s public safety expenses.)
Joint operations with Rockingham County, at $9.1 million, includes funding for several other public-safety-related agencies, including sheriff’s office, local courts system and Harrisonburg-Rockingham Regional Jail.
The city’s debt service — at a total $15.7 million — includes payments on various school facilities (an educational expense not reflected in the division’s operational budget) and the Community Services Board’s facility’s expansion.
Public works, which is $10.2 million, includes street maintenance, paving and traffic engineering.
In the above graph, “other” includes what the city gives to other projects, school and public transportation, local nonprofits, the Shenandoah Valley Conference Center at Hotel Madison, the local health department and the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Community Services Board.
How is the public safety pie divided up?
Many of the racial justice rallies this summer, including in Harrisonburg, have featured some activists calling to “defund the police” and redistribute those funds to social programs.
“I’m not sure people understand how this all works,” said Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English.
He said in the department’s budget, there isn’t a specific amount set aside for responding to calls related to mental health issues, in which police officers are often the first responders. So, he said, it’s not as if the funding to cover that responsibility could be simply transferred into another agency or social program’s budget.
“I don’t see that there are dollars that are allocated to the P[olice] D[epartment] that you could take out of our budget to allocate for mental health,” English said.
The Harrisonburg Police Department takes the largest piece of the public safety pie: 41.7%. That amounts to $12.4 million spread across operations, administration, criminal investigation, special operations and grants.
The Harrisonburg Fire Department is set to get $8.9 million this fiscal year, or 33.8% of the public safety fund. That’s split between fire suppression and prevention, administration and training.
Harrisonburg’s share going to the Middle River Regional Jail — funded jointly by the cities of Harrisonburg, Staunton, and Waynesboro, and Rockingham and Augusta counties — is $2.9 million.
In the above graph, “other” includes funding for the public safety building itself, court appointed attorneys, regional juvenile detention, building inspection and animal control.
What exactly pays for the city’s general fund?
The general fund is primarily paid for by taxes. General property taxes cover 43.9% of it, at $52 million.
Other local taxes — which include sales, meals, business license, hotel, motor vehicle license and cigarette taxes — bring in another $42.5 million.
The remaining one-fifth or so of the general fund is made up of revenue from the state, the municipally-owned Harrisonburg Electric Commission, reimbursements for debt payments from the Harrisonburg Redevelopment and Housing Authority, transfers from water and sewer and charges for things like recreational facilities and parking permits.
While the Harrisonburg Electric Commission agreed to pay more into the general fund this year, other revenue sources, such as the sales, meals and hotel taxes are expected to be far lower than initial estimates and even last year’s levels because of the pandemic’s economic effect.
Perhaps no portion of the budget debate illustrated that more than when city leaders opted this spring to put on hold taking on debt for the more than $100 million to build the second high school. The city council had only months earlier given the approval to go ahead with taking on the debt and moving forward with construction. But, though it was only months earlier, it was a different era, as City Manager Eric Campbell noted during an April council meeting.
“The economy in which those decisions were made,” he said, “no longer exists.”
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