Virginia state senators signed off on a bill Monday to allow Charlottesville to ask voters for a raise in the local sales tax in order to pay for school construction projects.
Under Senate Bill 298, the city would be able to increase the general retail sales tax by up to 1% if voters approve the measure in a referendum. The additional revenue would help to pay for the renovation and expansion of Buford Middle School.
City officials say that the increase would bring in about $12 million a year. The Buford project is part of the first phase of reconfiguration, which would bring all the middle grades in Charlottesville under one roof. That first phase is expected to cost $75 million.
As part of reconfiguration, sixth-graders would move to Buford and fifth-graders would go back to the elementary schools. Walker Upper Elementary, where those two grades are currently, would then be turned into an early childhood center in an eventual second phase.
The sales tax increase would expire after 20 years.
So far, nine localities in Virginia have received similar authorization from the General Assembly to issue a referendum. The bill making Charlottesville the 10th is sponsored by Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, and passed the Senate, 28 to 12.
“Having these as options to help us move forward on a reconfiguration of our middle school, which was built in 1966, is very important,” Charlottesville School Board chairwoman Lisa Larson-Torres said at a committee meeting last week.
The sales tax legislation is a top priority for Charlottesville as it seeks to move forward on reconfiguration after more than a decade of discussions.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, is sponsoring Senate Bill 472, which would give all localities the authorization to seek approval from voters, eliminating the need for cities and counties to first request permission from the General Assembly. That statewide authorization was one of several recommendations from the state Commission on School Construction and Modernization,
McClellan’s bill also passed the Senate on Monday by the same margin.
The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee passed both bills Jan. 19 by a vote of 14 to 2. Isle of Wright also is seeking authorization, which was approved by the committee.
Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, is the chief patron for two similar bills in the House — one of which would give all localities the authority to levy the sales increase if approved in a voter referendum and one just focused on Charlottesville. Both of those bills — HB 531 and HB 545 — have been referred to the finance subcommittee No. 3.
Hudson is part of that committee along with area lawmakers, Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper and Del. Chris Runion, R-Rockingham.
Deeds and McClellan said at the committee meeting that they wanted to keep the different school construction sales tax bills separate until they see what related bills pass in the Republican-controlled House of Delegates.