A proposed bill to raise the local sales tax in Halifax County to generate revenue for a new high school is now headed to the full Senate, where on Friday it will be decided whether county voters will have the opportunity to establish a local option sales tax by referendum.
After hearing from a local five-member delegation who travelled to Richmond early Tuesday morning to promote HB1634, the Finance Committee voted 9 to 4 with one abstention to report the bill to the floor of the full upper chamber for action most likely on Friday.
Senators voting in favor of Del. James Edmunds’ bill proceeding for a full vote of the Senate were Norment, Howell, Saslaw, Lucas, Ruff, Vogel, Carrico, Barker and Dance, and those opposing the bill were Senators Hanger, Newman, Obenshain and Dunnavant.
Sen. Wagner abstained from the vote.
The bill offers an alternative for county residents to help fund a new high school by adding a local one-cent tax to the current 5.3 cents state sales tax. However, now it must receive a supermajority two-thirds vote of the Senate’s 40 members - or 27 votes.
Should it pass the full Senate and escape a governor veto, the county board of supervisors still would be required to place the sales tax proposal on the local ballot, and a majority of voters would have to vote yes in a November referendum before the tax levy could go into effect.
Edmunds explained his bill clearly spells out the expiration date with a maximum 20-year limit for the potential sales tax increase to be clearly stated and known on the ballot, and the money may only be used for building a school.
“Personally, I think a sales tax of a dime for every $10 spent is the most fair tax, but counties can’t adjust their sales tax at all unless this bill passes, and my bill even gives the voters of Halifax County the power to decide if they even want that or not,” the delegate said after amending the bill to limit it to a 1 percent increase over the state’s 5.3 cents tax on Tuesday.
During the Finance Committee meeting, Edmunds was joined by County School Superintendent Mark Lineburg, County Supervisor Chairman Dennis Witt, Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital Executive Director Grey Watson, Halifax County High School Senior Jillian Waller and County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Mitzi McCormick, all of whom spoke on behalf of Edmunds’ bill.
In presenting the bill to the 16 Finance Committee members, the local delegate described how he and the county have been fighting an uphill battle to find funding for a new Halifax County High School building, and he quickly pointed out this bill does not cost the state anything.
Calling out a list of supporters, Edmunds said the Retail Merchants of Halifax County, Halifax County Chamber of Commerce, Halifax County Industrial Development Authority, Halifax County Farm Bureau, Halifax County Board of Supervisors, Halifax County School Board and numerous other civic organizations are in favor of the bill.
“This absolutely puts no fiscal impact on the commonwealth and simply gives the taxpayers of Halifax County another tool in the toolbox. We’re just asking for the opportunity to help ourselves,” he added.
School Superintendent Lineburg told members of the Senate Finance Committee of tremendous challenges faced in Halifax County including a high school attended by 1,500 to 1,600 students that “is falling apart.”
Taking it one step further, the school superintendent said if the existing Halifax County High School were to be placed in more affluent areas, “the students simply wouldn’t go to school there.”
However, building a new high school will require a 50 percent increase in local taxes, “and that is never going to happen,” he quickly added.
Working together with Del. Edmunds, businesses, agencies, boards and individuals over the past year, Lineburg said the solution for helping to partially fund the school was arrived at in the form of HB1634.
“And now we need your help with passing HB1634,” he concluded.
Supervisor Chairman Witt followed the superintendent pointing to what he called “startling statistics” such as the average income in Halifax County is below $40,000 and the county’s population continues to dwindle.
On top of that, Witt said the county is working to establish a new tax base with solar projects leading the way, but the county has been “handcuffed by the commonwealth.”
He referred to the caveat to solar farms being legislation passed in 2014 that reduces the solar tax by 80 percent affecting the biggest commercial projects in Halifax County over the past two years and in the foreseeable future hurting the county’s ability to tax its biggest up and coming industry.
He reminded Senators that Northern Virginia had been permitted to enact a similar sales tax to fund its transportation gridlock issues and assured them the 1 percent sales tax increase in Halifax County would take away nothing from the state’s sale tax.
“One locality, one tax, one purpose, one time with a 20-year-sunset that will have to face a voter referendum,” that’s all Halifax County is asking of this bi-partisan effort. “Virginia needs green energy, urban Virginia needs roads, and Halifax County needs a new high school,” Witt concluded.
High school senior Waller told Senators of moldy conditions, inadequate restroom facilities, a lack of sprinklers, falling bricks from the high school exterior, no alarm systems, cracks in the walls, embarrassing unraveling carpets, dilapidated sound systems, and her list of inadequacies at the existing high school went on and on.
One of her Ace team members once told her, “Every school is better than our school.”
“That is the honest opinion of most students at our high school,” Waller concluded.
Representing the largest employer in Halifax County, Sentara Halifax Regional Hospital supports HB 1634 due to the recruitment challenges posed by the dilapidated high school, Watson told Senators.
“If physicians have children of high school age, when we take them to the high school, it’s an immediate barrier to get them to locate in our area,” she said.
Representing the chamber, McCormick said a new high school boils down to economic growth for the county, and she urged Senators to support the legislation.