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'Painful setback:' Charlottesville sales tax bill dies in committee

Four House of Delegates dealt a final blow to Charlottesville’s plans to raise the local sales tax in order to pay for the renovation and expansion of Buford Middle School.

During a subcommittee meeting Friday, Republicans on the committee said they were sympathetic with communities’ school infrastructure needs, but they need to find other ways to help localities cover the cost of replacing or upgrading aging buildings.

The bill from Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, would’ve allowed Charlottesville voters to decide in a referendum whether to raise the sales tax by up to 1%. The estimated $12 million a year from that increase would only go toward school construction projects.

“I represent an area that sends us here to hold back on taxes and they don’t want us to become where we’ve got to put everything in a referendum,” said Del. Kathy Byron, chairwoman of the subcommittee who represents parts of Bedford, Campbell and Franklin counties as well as part of Lynchburg.

Without the sales tax increase, Charlottesville and other localities are looking at property tax hikes in order to pay for school construction projects. The Charlottesville School Board has worked for the last year on design plans for a renovated and expanded Buford Middle School, which would cost up to $75 million.

“This vote is a painful setback, but we will continue to explore every path forward to give our students the facilities that they deserve,” the school division said on social media.

Charlottesville United for Public Education, a group of parents and community members who support the overall reconfiguration project, said in a statement Friday afternoon that the fight isn’t over.

“A high-quality education demands that we invest in learning environments that are healthy, safe, and encourage student success,” the group wrote. “Not supporting this legislation sends the message to students in Charlottesville and around the Commonwealth that their needs are not a priority. We are disappointed that school facilities in Charlottesville – where the average building is 66 years old – have been put on the backburner by the state once again.”

The group encouraged the City Council to work with the community and find new solutions to fund the project.

“Where there is a political will, there is a way to fund public education in the city,” the group wrote. “It will take some thinking outside the box, but we are counting on City Council to step up for a vision long-deferred in our community.”

A bill from the senate that would’ve given all localities the authority to seek a voter referendum also failed. The same subcommittee killed off similar bills from Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, during a meeting last month.

Since then, Charlottesville City Schools hired a lobbying firm to help get Deeds’ bill across the finish line. The division also rallied support from the community, encouraging individuals to email Dels. Roxanne Robinson and Chris Runion. Runion represents part of Albemarle County and did not return a request for comment on his vote.

Unlike that meeting, there was more discussion about the bills, which had no public opposition and were backed by the Virginia School Boards Association, Virginia Education Association, Virginia Municipal League, and Virginia Association of Counties, among other groups.

Byron said everyone has a different way to get a solution on funding school construction and mentioned the need for a broader approach. The statewide sales tax option was recommended by the bipartisan state commission on school construction and modernization that concluded its work last year.

Byron added that the sales tax seemed counterproductive at a time when the General Assembly is giving teachers raises.

“But then to turn around, those same teachers are going to be taxed when they go in their community unless they go to another community to buy goods,” said Byron, who supported a 2019 bill that allowed Halifax County to ask voters whether to raise the sales tax.

Deeds said that’s the way the world works.

“If we want nice things, we have to pay for them,” he said.

Del. Robert Orrock, R-Caroline, said he didn’t like bifurcating the sales tax and would prefer that state assistance be based on the local composite index, the formula that determines state funding currently.

“With my in-laws living in Pittsylvania County, if they have a major purchase to make, they don’t make it in Pittsylvania County,” he said. “They go to Campbell County, because that 1% differential in sales tax — if it’s a major purchase — does make a difference in their shopping.”

Pittsylvania County voters narrowly rejected the sales tax increase in November.

“I’m not sure it has all the positives that most counties feel that it will bring to them,” Orrock said of the sales tax increases.

Halifax County, the first to use the sales tax approach, is moving forward on plans to build a new $109 million high school.

Orrock added that the better answer was what the House of Delegates tried to do this year, a $2 billion school construction loan program that would require a 30% local match. Localities will compete for loans, and the decision would be based on local funding commitment, local ability to pay, and building conditions, according to a budget presentation.

The senate’s budget includes $500 million in grants for school construction and renovation projects.

The state considers Charlottesville to have a higher ability to pay based on the state funding formula, which would likely mean less state money through the loan program.

Before the subcommittee’s vote on the Charlottesville bill, Mayor Lloyd Snook and councilor Juandiego Wade laid out the consequences of not getting the sales tax authority.

“To finance this whole project through other taxes, that will make it impossible in the next decade for us to, for example, buy a new fire truck or improve police and jail facilities and redevelop public housing the way we want to,” Snook said.

He said the city has been frugal, added that the city has a low real estate tax rate — 95 cents per $100 of assessed value — compared to other cities in Virginia.

On the loan program, Snook said the major need for such funds is in other localities with fewer resources than Charlottesville.

“I think that rural voters and taxpayers would properly be outraged if a significant portion of those funds went to a place like Charlottesville,” he said. “We are asking for the ability to solve our problems ourselves with our resources without being a burden to the rest of the state.”


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