Council approves 4-cent property tax increase for new high school; Mayor says MRRJ expansion is ‘off the table’

A computer-generated rendering from February shows the plans for the new high school campus between I-81 and Main Street.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

The Harrisonburg City Council on Tuesday approved a four-cent increase on the real estate tax rate, which will help restart construction of the new high school — all part of the final version of the city’s nearly $295 million Fiscal Year 2022 budget. 

Both the tax increase and the final budget passed by 4-1 votes, with Councilmember George Hirschmann dissenting. 

The $294.9 million budget  for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, represents a $25 million increase over the current year’s budget. 

Meanwhile, the 4-cent property tax rate increase will bring Harrisonburg’s rate up to 90 cents per $100 of assessed property value. After the council approved that tax increase, the final amended version of the budget showed an expected $1.8 million increase in general property tax revenue. 

That funding is intended to go toward debt payments the city will incur to restart construction on the new high school, which has been on hold for more than a year. 

That’s in addition to funds the school district expects to receive from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. The Daily News-Record reported that Harrisonburg City Public Schools is slated to receive $11.8 million total from the rescue plan, $9.5 million of which they can legally use towards the school’s construction.

Harrisonburg Schools Superintendent Michael Richards and members of the school board have publicly urged the council to approve the tax increase so that construction could resume on the school, which will be built between South Main Street and I-81. The contractor, Nielsen Builders, Inc., had been working on site preparation early last year when the pandemic hit. The city pressed pause on construction as tax revenue waned in the wake of shut-downs and quarantines. 

Between emailed comments and calls during Tuesday’s public hearing on the tax increase, nine local residents spoke out in opposition to — or at least to raise concerns about — the increase, while seven made supportive comments.

“We received a lot of feedback via email as well as phone calls, but we were elected to make tough decisions,” said Vice Mayor Sal Romero.

The Middle River Regional Jail’s authority board has been pushing for a multi-million-dollar expansion plan. (File photo by Randi B. Hagi)

MRRJ bed expansion ‘off the table’

All plans to increase the number of beds at Middle River Regional Jail are now “off the table,” Mayor Deanna Reed announced in a Harrisonburg City Council meeting on Tuesday. 

Plans to expand the jail — which is owned jointly by Harrisonburg, Staunton, Waynesboro, and Rockingham and Augusta counties — stalled out earlier this year after both Harrisonburg and Waynesboro city council members expressed concerns and outright opposition to expansion.

Reed said she’s been meeting with the four other municipality leaders to discuss what renovations they could potentially support. When they met last Tuesday, she said, they discussed the option of adding “40-some” beds to be designated as mental health pods, but that the jurisdictional leaders eventually nixed the idea.

“We decided that was … an issue not only for Harrisonburg but also for other localities, so we decided to eliminate the mental health bed component,” Reed said. “So this means that all bed expansion options are off the table.”

She said there is general agreement among the jurisdiction leaders to support renovations to the facility, such as upgrades to the medical unit, mental health offices, kitchen and laundry area.

Completing all recommended renovations, expanding the warehouse space and building new support service areas, such as the medical unit and laundry area, would cost about $14.5 million, according to a presentation that Jail Superintendent Jeffery Newton gave to the council in January.

“I’m relieved to hear the mental health beds are taken off so that there are no new beds,” Councilmember Laura Dent said. Referencing a tour several members of the city council took of the jail in April, though, she said it was “alarming … how inadequate the medical facility was.” 

“That is spot on,” Reed said. “We are responsible for the inmates that are in there, and we want to make sure that they are treated responsibly and not inhumanely.”

Councilmember Chris Jones said he wanted to see more details about the upgrades the jail authority board wants. The authority board’s next meeting is June 1.

Also in the meeting:

  • Romero announced that the online, interactive map through which residents can provide input on the city’s Downtown Master Plan will close at the end of the month. 
  • The council voted unanimously to recognize Juneteenth as a paid holiday for city staff. 
  • The council voted unanimously to appoint William Jones to the Towing Board. 
  • The council also voted unanimously to exempt the nonprofit organizations New Creation VA and the Central Valley Habitat for Humanity from paying real estate taxes.

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