BLACKSBURG – The town’s budget planning is being steered by Virginia Tech’s expansion, municipal officials said this week.
“Everything is going to revolve around this Virginia Tech growth that’s coming … The community needs to prepare for that,” Town Manager Marc Verniel said Tuesday.
The town council is beginning its annual budget work with a proposed spending plan that keeps the tax rates the same, passes along a utility increase that will add just under $3 to the average residential customer’s monthly bill, and gives town workers a 2 percent pay increase.
The town council is scheduled to dig into the details of the 2016-17 fiscal year plan starting at a retreat today and continuing over the next month. The council intends a public hearing on a budget April 12, then vote on it April 26.
The $61 million proposed budget that Verniel and town staff prepared is about 1 percent higher than the current year’s overall spending. Looking just at general fund expenditures, with capital projects and debt service removed, the proposed $31.4 million is about 3 percent more than the current year.
Included in the budget are several planning efforts tied to the anticipation of growth linked to Tech’s expansion. The university last year announced plans to add 5,000 undergraduate students, as well as additional staff, over the next seven years or so. With about 30,000 Tech students already at the Blacksburg campus, the increased enrollment is “as significant as taking a (University of) Mary Washington or a Christopher Newport (University) and adding it to Virginia Tech,” Verniel said.
The proposed budget would set in motion studies to look at what areas might be best for additional student housing, how additional traffic will be handled, and how the town’s transit system can be expanded and improved.
“Transit’s going to be critical … We need to find ways to make it so convenient for them to ride the bus that it becomes the preferred option,” Verniel said.
With limited open land left to construct large, student-oriented housing complexes, Verniel said the town’s expectation is that more and more new proposals will involve the redevelopment of older apartment complexes. One model of this is The Edge, which opened in 2014 across Prices Fork Road from Tech’s campus, Verniel said. It replaced the older OakBridge apartment complex, which was torn down and its 354 bedrooms replaced with a denser, 911-bedroom development.
The proposed budget also includes implementing expected recommendations from an ongoing town review of its processes for handling development proposals. The review was started partly with an eye toward eliminating bottlenecks in the Tech-related growth that is expected, and partly as a response to longstanding complaints that Blacksburg is a more difficult environment for such projects than are surrounding localities, Verniel said.
A final report from the development services review won’t arrive until May or June, but town officials already are acting on one of its findings and taking steps to quicken the town’s response when developers turn in proposals, Verniel said.
The town also plans to take a more organized look at what additional staffing will be needed to meet growth for the next three to five years, Verniel said.
The town’s financial picture looks brighter than it has in several years with general fund revenues projected to grow 3 percent to $901,200.
The largest part of the new money came from a $510,000 jump – about 11 percent – in meals tax revenue. Deputy Town Manager Steven Ross wrote in an email Wednesday that the meals tax estimate is based on growth that the town has seen in collections, and that it may be driven by new restaurants and the rising cost of meals.
“As restaurants increase prices the amount of tax collected grows proportionally,” Ross wrote.
Mayor Ron Rordam described Blacksburg as at a pivotal moment in the town’s development.
“Very few communities are given the opportunity to plan for significant growth before it happens,” Rordam wrote in an email Wednesday. “Virginia Tech has been very open in sharing their plans, and they are very open with us about working on ways to manage this anticipated growth. We are fortunate.
“Over the next two or three years, the most important items we will deal with are how we handle this growth … It is our goal to deal with the growth in a sustainable manner and keep the character of the town what it is today.”