city_council

The council unanimously voted to cut $11.2 million from the $281 million budget it passed on May 26.

Harrisonburg City Council is bracing for a $6 million budget shortfall because of COVID-19 in the next fiscal year, which will begin July 1.

The bulk of the financial hit is because of a $5.3 million of lost revenue from local taxes. A $590,000 loss in general property taxes and $100,000 in other revenue losses are to blame for the rest of the deficit according to city documents. Originally, City Manager Eric Campbell said that the city was originally projected to sustain a $10 million loss, but the estimation didn’t account for Governor Ralph Northam’s (D) partial reopening of certain activities.

With the economic impact, council unanimously voted to slash $11.2 million from the $281 million budget it passed on May 26. In addition to the cuts, Harrisonburg Electric Commission (HEC) paid $1.5 million to finance the city’s budget in addition to the $5.2 million HEC was set to contribute next fiscal year.

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

Council trimmed $1.1 million from Harrisonburg City Public School’s education transfers budget, the largest single general fund item for the city. Harrisonburg will furnish its schools with $36 million from the general fund, a modest increase from this fiscal year’s $35.8 million.

Councilors also pruned $2.9 million from the school fund, dropping the total award to $85.5 million. Instruction funds will take the largest hit, scheduled to lose nearly 3% of its original award. The school nutrition and technology fund will remain untouched at $4.5 million.

Later in the meeting, the council unanimously approved a supplemental appropriation of $2.3 million to purchase the former Pano’s property on South Main Street to build the entrance to the second Harrisonburg high school.

Also docked from the budget is a 7% reduction from the public works fund, including a $603,900 cut to highway and street maintenance and $114,000 decrease to traffic engineering.

Before budget considerations, Director of Public Works Tom Hartman unveiled that during the pandemic, downtown has seen an estimated 50-60% decrease in vehicle traffic but a sharp “uptick” in bicycle and pedestrian activity. To accommodate, the council unanimously approved Hartman’s plan to temporarily close or alter segments of Federal Street between Newman Avenue and Wolfe Street to improve bicycle and pedestrian use throughout the summer. 

Council also slashed the entire Stormwater Capital Projects Fund of $1.1 million, an ongoing endeavor to address community stormwater issues.

Campbell said more alterations to the budget may happen in the future to keep the city economically solid if revenues trend lower than expected.

“This is our best guess of where we’re going to land in 2021,” Campbell said.

With the budget cuts came a $738,000 decrease to public safety. Police related expenditures from the public safety budget are slated to decrease $480,000 in the midst of calls to defund police departments. The majority of the diminished finances will come from the police administration budget.

Toward the end of the meeting, council members focused on the community protests in response to a police officer killing George Floyd in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.

For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, the courthouse bells tolled in downtown Harrisonburg last Friday to symbolize the pain Floyd endured when the officer kneeled on his neck. Hundreds gathered in Court Square at the second installment of the Peace Rally organized by Stan Maclin of the Harriet Tubman Cultural Center of Harrisonburg. The crowd hurled questions and pleas at Harrisonburg Police Chief Eric English, Rockingham County Commonwealth Attorney Marsha Garst and Judge Anthony Bailey, demanding Harrisonburg to not become the next Minneapolis.

The rally followed a silent march through downtown attended by thousands on June 1. Another silent march hosted by JMU NAACP will occur Friday at 3 p.m., beginning at the Warner Commons.

Mayor Deeana Reed said the past events captured the “soul of Harrisonburg.”

“We hear you, and we thank you for standing for justice,” Reed said. “It’s going to take everyone, but this [experience] is not new for black people.”

Councilman Chris Jones echoed the voices of Harrisonburg protesters. He called for English and Campbell to investigate how dispatch can divert tasks outside traditional police work — like mental health-related issues and non-emergency calls — to another agency more suited to meet those needs.

“We’re overloading them, and then we end up over policing and militarizing the police for no reason,” Jones said.

Reed requested that English be present at the next council meeting to discuss strategies and hear concerns. Councilman Richard Baugh said the council will conduct “deep dives” into city rules to uncover a solution to prejudice against black community members at the hands of law enforcement.

“[Floyd’s murder] is not the first,” Baugh said. “It’s the end of an all too long line. It’s up to us to decide what we’re going to do about this.”

Contact Brice Estes at estes2ba@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.