By Jack Hunter
Buena Vista City Councilman Steve Webb says the city is turning a corner heading into the new fiscal year.
“Buena Vista is in a better spot,” Webb said. “When we settled the lawsuit we had with the golf course, it freed us up. We have cleaned our name up, so that we are now eligible to apply for free money, grants and stuff, throughout the state, and federal grants.”
City Manager Jason Tyree and Finance Director Charles Clemmer presented the first draft of Buena Vista’s city budget for the upcoming fiscal year last week to the Budget and Finance Committee. The committee, made up of three council members, will use committee meetings and work sessions to critique the budget before making a formal recommendation to council in May. The new budget will go into effect July 1.
The presented budget had a surplus of $116,320 in the general fund.
Tyree said the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds have made it easier to budget. Buena Vista received almost $8 million from ARPA starting in summer 2021 and have spent about half of it already.
He estimates the city will use between $150,000 and $200,000 of its remaining balance to fund city projects like renovating a courtroom, funding Main Street Buena Vista and repairing roofs on both the sewage treatment plant and the police department building.
City Council has to approve ARPA requests, but they do not show up in the city’s operating budget.
Webb said it is nice that the city has a large fund balance, but it needs to be careful with how it is used.
“For a change, we’ve got a little bit of money in the bank,” Webb said. “You need to keep it for a rainy day. You never know when the pump goes down at the sewage treatment plant, and that pump costs something like $20,000, $30,000 to fix.”
Notable changes from the 2023 fiscal year budget include added water and sewer expenses, a decrease in jail funding, and a 5% raise for city employees. Tyree and Clemmer put together the budget draft after meeting with municipal departments and non-profits.
The city is attempting to balance the water and sewage budgets. Clemmer said both are outside of the city’s general fund because of their status as enterprise funds. Tyree said enterprise funds are supposed to pay for themselves, if not turn a profit.
“They really should have a profit because they need maintenance work,” Tyree said. “You don’t need millions of dollars of profit, but just, you know, $100,000, so that you can continuously maintain your systems.”
Part of this effort is moving some of Tyree and Clemmer’s salary into the general fund. In previous years, 50% of both salaries were budgeted in the water and sewer expenditures. The initial budget moved their full salaries into the general fund. Both the water and sewer funds in the initial budget show no surplus, but both funds break even.
Tyree said the city won’t raise rates this year despite the maintenance issues with the wastewater treatment plant. The plant was built in 1986, according to the city’s website.
He said the city can still do this because of the remaining ARPA funds they have to repair the plant. The city has to use the ARPA funds before December 2024.
But the city will need to do more than just maintain the sewage treatment plant.
“The system we have over there now is more of an antique,” Webb said. “We need to go in and completely re-do that whole system from top to bottom.”
Clemmer said the city will try to save some ARPA funds to do the overhaul, but it will not come close to covering what he said will be a $20 million price tag to overhaul the plant.
Tyree said at the meeting that the city will need federal or state help to complete the project, and that he is trying to receive grants to help cover the costs.
Buena Vista offers less money to regional jail
The Rockbridge Regional Jail asked for almost $100,000 more from Buena Vista for the new fiscal year. Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista all contribute money to the jail, which serves all three jurisdictions.
In total, the jail asked for over $575,000 more in operations costs and $187,000 in capital requests. Superintendent Derek Almarode said in a letter accompanying the budget requests that the main driver for the new costs was a new treatment program to assist inmates with Opioid Use Disorder.
But Almarode presented a revised budget at a Rockbridge Regional Jail Commission meeting on March 23rd that did not include the treatment program. He said at the meeting that the program’s removal was at the request of the commission’s finance committee, which consists of Lexington City Manager Jim Halasz and Rockbridge County Administrator Spencer Suter.
The new budget Almarode presented asks for about $110,000 less from Buena Vista compared to what he asked for last week. The commission voted to adopt the new budget at the March 23 meeting. If approved, the city would be contributing less money to the jail than it did last year.
The treatment program would have expanded the jail’s current contract with MediKo Correctional Health Care, which has been providing physician and nursing services, among other services, since October 2017. Almarode said the jail does not diagnose inmates, but it can treat them if they already have a diagnosis. The new program would have given the jail the staff and resources to diagnose inmates.
Almarode said in the letter than the new treatment plan was needed because the jail is required to care for its inmates by law. He also said the jail needed the new opioid treatment plan to stay compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Tyree said last week that he didn’t feel like the jail needed what they asked for.
“I don’t think it’s required,” Tyree said. “We already fund a component for mental health over there. We have a doctor, nurse and all that that already gets funded, but they want some additional funding for that.”
Raises for city employees also included in the budget draft
The city budget draft includes a 5% raise for all city employees as a response to a 5% raise for state employees that took effect in August 2022. The Commonwealth of Virginia funds numerous positions inside of Buena Vista’s city government, including two positions in both the treasurer’s office and the sheriff’s office.
“To me, it’s a little unfair if the treasurer is getting 5%, because that’s what the state is giving her, if the employees working under her are not getting that 5%, but they’re doing the exact same job basically,” Tyree said.
A 5% raise for city employees would cost an extra $251,208, according to the budget.
Webb said he expects to have more opinions on the budget after the Budget and Finance Committee has its first work session, which is scheduled for March 23. The committee is made up of Councilmembers Tyson Cooper, Cheryl Hickman and Webb.