City leaders mull 8-cent property tax increase to pay for new school’s opening, other services

The limestone building of the old Harrisonburg High School was built in 1908, formerly the Municipal Building on South Main Street, and is part of the city government complex. (File photo)

The City Council is considering a proposed increase in the real estate tax next year, which would be the largest single increase in recent years and would take that tax rate to $1.04 for every $100 of assessed value on property. 

For a $200,000 house, that would amount to a $2,080 tax payment, up by $160 from the current rate of 96 cents. The council gradually increased the tax rate by a total of 10 cents over the previous three years, in large part to help cover the roughly $100 million construction cost for the new Rocktown High School that’s scheduled to open in the fall. The proposed increased property tax rate would help cover the cost to open and operate Rocktown High, as well as other city school operational expenses, Banks said.

City Manager Ande Banks presented the city council on Tuesday with the first draft of the proposed city budget for the 2024-25 fiscal year, totaling over $404.9 million — which would mark the first Harrisonburg budget to top $400 million. Also at Tuesday’s meeting, the council reversed its previous denial of a townhome rezoning request from the March 26 meeting and unanimously approved a request to install a commemorative historical marker downtown.

2024-25 proposed budget

Other key parts of the initial city budget proposal include $6.6 million more to transfer to city schools, $1.7 million toward a 3% city employee salary increase, $1.5 million toward staffing and equipping the new fifth fire station that will serve the north end of town and $555,000 toward increased employer health insurance contributions. 

The proposal also includes new positions within the city manager’s office, parks and recreation, and two Rocktown High School resource officers. 

The proposed school funds total more than $118.4 million, which is an increase of $4 million from the current city budget.

Council members didn’t comment on the proposal Tuesday. Instead, the council will schedule work sessions to go through the draft city staff prepared in more detail. The budget must be adopted by May 31, and there will be a public hearing on April 23 as well as two budget readings — one on May 14 and the other on May 28.

If approved, a property tax rate increase of 8 cents would mark the first time a city council approved more than a nickel increase since the approval of a 7-cent increase in April 2017.

Reversal on townhome vote

During the March 26 city council meeting, the council turned down a rezoning request to construct townhomes off Port Republic Road by a 3-2 vote. But the council resurrected the issue Tuesday and ultimately approved it by a 4-1 vote with council members Chris Jones and Monica Robinson changing their original opposition to support it. Mayor Deanna Reed dissented again.

“I wanted to see this item brought back up because although that [increased] traffic puts fear in me, about what the future could look like for Port Republic Road, the development is already happening,” Jones said. “I thought it would be a disservice to those that are seeking single family homes in the city [to vote no].”

Robinson said she originally voted against the project because she was worried there are already too many approved housing proposals in the pipeline. However, she said after meeting with Liz Webb, the city housing coordinator, she realized some developments already in the pipeline have yet to come to fruition.

“I thought about BTC, the Bluestone development, and also about the Spangler property on Garbers Church Road, which is in the pipeline, but we know that it’s now for sale, so there’s nothing happening,” Robinson said. “When’s the last time someone has actually made a contact about a property that’s in the pipeline or development that’s in the pipeline? So I kind of started weighing all of those things out and realized that maybe we don’t have too much in the pipeline that this started making more sense to me.”

This rezoning request approval also prompted a special use permit to build the townhomes. That permit also won approval with a 4-1 vote. Again, Reed was the only ‘no’ vote. 

Vice Mayor Laura Dent requested the motion be approved with a minor change to the developer’s original plan. In order to allow for proper “breathing room” and lower the housing density, Dent proposed the development consist of six units max per building as opposed to the traditional eight units. 

The developers agreed, stating it would result in minimal loss of housing and could actually increase the proposed complex design.

Historical marker approved

The council unanimously approved a request from high schoolers Pria Dua and Elizabeth Kidd to place a marker outside the city Courthouse commemorating Federal Judge John Paul Jr. 

Nominated by President Herbert Hoover, Paul served as chief judge from 1948-1958 on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia in Harrisonburg. He played an important role in helping to desegregate schools in the area after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education.  

Republican U.S. Rep. Ben Cline and Democratic U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine both expressed support for the commemorative marker and its proposed location. 

Other highlights

  • Alley Cat Tattoo, currently located at 990 Reservoir St. will move to 220 Reservoir St. after 23 years at its current location.  
  • Meals on Wheels, a food delivery service that brings healthy meals to those in need, will increase its delivery days to three instead of two. Before COVID-19, the organization delivered meals five times a week.

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