VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Lack of tax relief and transparency with the budget process are the biggest concerns for several Virginia Beach council members as the city works to finalize its proposed fiscal year 2024 budget.

This comes after Vice Mayor Rosemary Wilson presented the reconciliation letter from her and Mayor Bobby Dyer to council at Tuesday’s work session, which shows recommended changes to the proposed budget ahead of the final budget vote on May 9.

“Through a series of City Council workshops, including briefings from individual departments and Capital Improvement Program section managers, we have worked diligently as a collective body to finalize a budget that meets the needs of the community,” the letter reads. “Through those workshop meetings, as well as valuable input from the community at public hearings, emails to City leadership, digital participation through Balancing Act, SpeakUp VB, and via social media, recommended changes to the Proposed Budget are outlined below.

The recommendations include 40 different line items, mostly in community grants, but also millions in tax dollars set to go to the roughly $350 million Atlantic Park project at the former Dome site at the Oceanfront.

“That’s a challenging piece for me because I’m not sure the public understands that this is another $19.5 million in tax money. I hear about stakeholders, the largest stakeholder group in this city is the people, not special interests, people,” said Councilman Chris Taylor. “… [the surf park] could revolutionize and change the footprint of our Oceanfront, enhance our visitors’ experience, but I can’t say in confidence we gave the public a transparent, fair, candid and honest opportunity to weigh in on these moneys.”

Taylor said he believes feedback from citizens wasn’t considered, as he read names from residents who reached from across the city for tax relief.

“We had over 50 emails from individuals that expressed … a desire for lowering taxes. And I don’t think as a new member that there were more than one conversation where we dug in,” Taylor said.

Councilwoman Sabrina Wooten added “still today I have questions about transparency, process, procedure for the budget … I think there’s room for improvement, there’s more building we can do, especially in terms of tax relief … it doesn’t seem like their feedback is being received.”

Wooten also agreed on Taylor’s point about Atlantic Park: “in terms of transparency we need to see if the citizens, what their feedback is on putting this into this reconciliation process … that’s a huge undertaking, millions and millions of dollars, not to mention the optics.”

Councilwoman Barbara Henley said she “can’t be a part of this” in also speaking out against the budget recommendations. Henley said Tuesday’s reconciliation letter was similar to last year’s from Wilson and Dyer, “which just added a lot of giveaways.”

“I don’t see any attempt whatsoever to reduce any spending and to give tax relief, which is what I had the most emails concerned. We don’t even seem to have looked at that.”

The reconciliation includes no changes to the city’s real estate tax rate or personal property taxes, after another year of increase real estate assessments. Under the current proposal, Virginia Beach’s real estate tax rate would stay at 99 cents per $100 in assessed value, still the lowest of Hampton Roads’ seven cities.

Henley also said the city’s Community Organization Grants (COG) program, which picks local non-profits to help fund, should be ended if some organizations can get funding outside of the process through the reconciliation.

“It’s not fair to make some organizations go through this competition process if we then are just going to give out money otherwise,” Henley says. ” … if we’re going to do also of these non-department community grants, then that’s an entirely different way of doing things. And saying it’s a one time thing doesn’t mean a thing. Because I look at last year’s letter and some of the same ones had a one-time grant last year.”

Mayor Bobby Dyer in speaking about grants said: “one of the things that we want to do is make sure that we help the people in the public that need helping, and government cannot do this by ourselves my colleagues, so by empowering and helping finance [organizations included for grant funding] we are actually providing a service of help because the people in the neighborhoods know their neighborhood better than anyone,” adding that council members are “having some discretion about how the money can get to the right people.”

“Is this a new way of doing things? Yes,” Dyer said. “And by the same token times and challenges dictate innovation and different ways of doing things,” citing the impacts of inflation in defending the budget recommendations, which call for raises for city employees, 40-plus new EMS positions and other initiatives — in addition to a budget request from Virginia Beach City Public Schools with raises for teachers and funding to replace aging schools.

Dyer also said that he believes economic development projects such Atlantic Park would eventually help reduce the burden on taxpayers.

Councilman Joash Schulman emphasized that while he and others weighed tax relief, there isn’t “much margin.”

“One penny reduction in real estate tax on a $250,000 home equals to a $25 annual savings,” Schulman said. “So when you weigh that against the many needs that we have, with teachers who are deserving of pay increases … and we’ve heard from our public safety personnel, our firefighters need somebody riding along with them in the fire truck to help make sure the battalion chief knows where they’re going and to plan for upon arrival … every penny of real estate tax, there’s 46.75% of that that goes to schools so if we’re talking about a rate reduction we’re also impacting our schools.”

So what happens from here? Not much could change with the proposed budget as the deadline for passing it nears.

The council has to pass a budget by May 15, per state law that requires schools to have a budget by that date. The vote on the proposed budget is expected on May 9.