By LAINE GRIFFIN
Daily News-Record 10/1/19
HARRISONBURG — Tonight the Harrisonburg City School Board is expected to accept the final design proposal of a second Harrisonburg high school.
School Board Chairwoman Deb Fitzgerald said in a previous interview that there will most likely be amendments that will be proposed and accepted with the final design proposal.
“There will be some prelim unfinalized costing numbers on these possible deletions and additions,” Fitzgerald said, adding that the cost numbers mentioned at the meeting will only be for the individual items.
The School Board will meet at 7 p.m. in the City Council Chambers at City Hall, 409 S. Main St.
After Nielsen Builders Inc. and Grim and Parker Architects presented the board with designs for the interior and exterior of the school at its Sept. 17 work session, the board is anticipated to vote on the design proposal today.
Following the vote, Nielsen Builders Inc. and Grim and Parker Architects
will put the final touches on the design, and the School Board will vote at its Nov. 5 meeting on the final design and guaranteed maximum price for the school to be opened in 2022.
Board members have a wish list of items under $500,000 that they’d like to have as part of the new school, such as a canopied walkway from the bus drop-off area to the side door of the school where students would enter.
The board has also looked at larger cost-saving measures, if necessary, such as not having athletic fields because the new school could share with Harrisonburg High School.
A stadium, baseball and softball field, tennis courts and practice fields are some of the items still under consideration.
Fitzgerald said there is a possibility that the athletic facilities are knocked off the list because of construction costs, “but what will the costs in time and transportation and
hassle you’d pay every semester for every year if we had to stare with Harrisonburg High School?”
“You can save money in the short run with dollars but not in the long run,” she said. “We have to look into the future and see what will be the most cost effective — even though that’s hard to do.”
Councilman Richard Baugh said in an interview Friday that if the city didn’t build the sporting fields right away, “the space isn’t going anywhere. So, which is the good and bad idea? That’s where I’d like to have a crystal ball.”
Other items, such as an auxiliary gym and culinary arts lab, have been knocked off the wish list for the new school.
If the board doesn’t approve the design with possible amendments at today’s meeting, it will have its Oct. 15 work session in City Council Chambers at 7 p.m. to vote to approve the design with any amendments.
At the School Board’s Nov. 5 meeting, the board will vote on the final design and guaranteed maximum price for the school to be opened in 2022, although Harrisonburg City Council did not vote for the school to be opened then.
On Dec. 5, 2017, the School Board voted to go with the design presented by architecture firm Grimm and Parker to be opened for the 2021-22 school year at an estimated cost of $ 76 million. In a January 2018 meeting, council voted 3- 2 to approve funding the high school with the opening date to be 2023- 24. Voting to open it in the 2023 academic year instead of earlier wrtr Baugh, George Hirschmann and former councilman Ted Byrd. Mayor Deanna Reed and Chris Jones voted against the plan, saying they wanted the school to open sooner. Councilman Sal Romero replaced Byrd following the November 2018 election and campaigned on opening the school as soon as possible. Although Reed, Jones and Romero publicly said it was a priority for them to open the school sooner, no vote has been taken to do so.
But the vote for change will come before council soon. If all goes according to plan for the School Board’s votes, division Superintendent Michael Richards will take the design and total maximum cost to City Council at its Nov. 12 meeting, with the open date set for 2022. If council approves everything, the city will break ground in November or December of this year. If council doesn’t approve everything, Fitzgerald said it will be up to them on how things will move forward.
Baugh said that in a perfect world, waiting until 2028 would be a better time to get the project going, although he knows it’s an unrealistic date.
“If we could wait until 2028, which no one thought we could do, then we would have more debt paid off,” he said. Baugh said some of council at the time of the previous vote wanted to wait because it would have a positive effect on the city’s borrowing capacity. Once the city uses up all its debt capacity, “you don’t have room for anything else until 2028,” Baugh said. He said there’s been a lot of emphasis on “if you wait, the sticker price goes up. But it doesn’t if we hit a recession.”
In 2017, the real estate tax rate was 78 cents per $100 of valuation. Now, it’s 85 cents per $100 of valuation.
Another burden for residents includes how much city property is not taxable.
The more that isn’t taxable, the higher the tax burden is on taxable property owners.
According to a Feb. 18, 2018, story in the Daily News- Record, Baugh said about 25% of the city’s property isn’t taxable and belongs largely to the state-supported James Madison University along with nonprofits and the city itself.
“This number is a gradual thing,” Baugh said. “Once JMU expands more, [the percentage] will continue to creep up.”
If the city waited until some of its debt rolls off, officials could add more bond debt and still avoid a high tax hike.
Harrisonburg Director of Communications Michael Parks said that for the real estate assessments in 2019, the tax- exempt properties assessment is $1,536,828,630. The total assessment of all property is $5,848,565,183, which means 26.3% is not taxable.
Parks also said the city’s total bonded debt is around $168 million.
“The city does [have] financial policies which dictate how much debt we can take on, and what percentage of our annual budget that debt payments cannot top,” he said. The state mandates that the city’s debt cannot be more than 10% of the total assessed value of taxable real estate.
“But we set a stricter financial management policy at 6%,” Parks said. “The city also has a financial management policy that states that debt payments shall not exceed 15% of that year’s budget.” Parks said the city won’t know exactly what those percentages translate into when it comes to dollar amounts until they get updated real estate information from the Commissioner’s of the Revenue’s Office.
When city representatives purchased the 60 acres of land for $5 million for the second high school on Aug. 23, 2018, the estimated construction cost was $76 million. That number jumped to $85.6 million after representatives from Grim and Parker Architects presented updated cost projections to the School Board at a Jan. 7 work session meeting.
Baugh said in the discussions he has participated in, he has seen the number move around a lot, with $76 million being the lowest.
He would not say what the highest number was that he heard.
At this point in time, Baugh said he has no answer as to whether he will vote to open the new school in 2022. He said council never voted on changing the opening date from 2023 to 2022 because the School Board never asked it to. He said his vote will all come down to the guaranteed maximum price. “I’m keeping my mind open,” he said. “I have to have the final proposal in front of me. I want to see what number they come up with to decide whether I’m going to vote yes to all of this.”