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Costly choices all ‘round on Halifax County school facilities

SoVaNow.com / November 12, 2018
The Halifax County Board of Supervisors and School Board met in joint session Thursday night to talk about where Halifax County goes from here — with a high school badly in need of upgrades and a county budget that is already stressed by the cost of renovating the courthouse and other needs.

“We certainly have challenges in the future in Halifax County,” said Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg.

Lineburg made a presentation to supervisors and school trustees that highlighted the cost of postponing work at HCHS, where HVAC systems are failing, security is lacking and the building is pockmarked by four decades of use.

Based on data by the Virginia Department of Education, Lineburg said waiting until 2027, when the county sheds most of to rebuild HCHS — existing debt burden — would drive up the current construction estimate of $100 million to $159 million, taking into account inflation and compound interest costs.

“It’s tough now, it could be tougher in the future,” said Lineburg.

While county officials are still early in the process of deciding what to do about school facility improvements — the list of proposed projects also includes renovations to the HCHS football stadium and elementary school closings and expansions — the nearest point of consensus among supervisors and trustees is that Halifax County needs some help in the state budget to move forward.

“We won’t know what cards we’re playing until the General Assembly convenes” for its 2019 session, said J.T. Davis, ED-1 supervisor and chair of the finance committee.

Without help from the state, Halifax County is looking at a real estate property tax increase of somewhere around 21 cents to pay for a $100 million replacement high school, Davis said. Halifax’s current tax rate is 48 cents per $100 in value.

“The probability of something happening in that neighborhood is slim and none,” said Davis of a 21-cent tax hike.

Add in the cost of renovating Tuck Dillard Stadium and county elementary school facilities — projects that would drive overall capital expenditures to around $170 million — and the anticipated hit to the real estate tax rate would be 35 cents, Davis said.

He urged the School Board to “go back to the drawing board” and develop alternative, cheaper options for upgrading school facilities.

However, Lineburg said future property tax increases could be lessened by developing private-public partnerships to underwrite a portion of the cost of a new high school. He also said replacing HCHS with a more efficient, modern building would allow the School Board to shave around three-quarters of a million dollars annually in maintenance and energy costs — savings that also would pare the size of any future tax increase.

“In my mind, you hope to drive a penny or two down [on the tax rate] from internal savings, you get a penny from private partnerships, then you hope to get some help from state funding,” he said.

Lineburg said annual debt service to construct a $100 million replacement building for HCHS would be about $5.4 million. A penny increase in the real estate tax generates around $380,000 in fresh revenue.

However, the $5.4 million annual load for debt service could be cut in half or better if the General Assembly looks favorably on efforts by local legislators to assist local school divisions that face building needs.

One such piece of legislation is House Bill 1634, drafted by Halifax Del. James Edmunds for the 2019 General Assembly session. It would allow Virginia localities to impose an additional local option sales and use tax to pay for educational needs. The local option sales tax would require the approval of citizens via a voter referendum before it could go into effect.

Lineburg said a 1-cent local sales tax would generate “at least three million dollars” annually for school construction — more than reducing by half the projected real estate tax increase for a new HCHS facility.

He also pointed to plans by state Sens. Frank Ruff and Bill Stanley, who represent the eastern and western halves of Halifax County, to introduce bills that would set aside hundreds of millions of dollars in state sales tax revenue on internet purchases for use by school divisions.

The approaches suggested by Ruff and Stanley differ: Stanley, a Franklin County Republican, has proposed using the new tax revenue — enabled by a Supreme Court decision that allows states to capture unpaid sales taxes on e-commence transactions — to float a $2 billion Virginia school construction bond. Ruff, a Mecklenburg Republican who sits on the Senate Finance Committee, is proposing to channel the money into the state’s Literary Fund, which provides low-interest loans for school construction.

In describing Ruff’s proposal, which is not yet in draft form, Lineburg said there’s a possibility the Literary Fund will be able to provide no-interest loans for school construction, which would save Halifax County tens of millions of dollars over time.

“This is all theoretical, it’s in conversation,” he said.

However, some combination of bills by Edmunds, Ruff and Stanley, if they succeed in the upcoming session, would greatly reduce Halifax County’s cost of replacing HCHS. “At that point you’re getting a new high school for $60 million instead of a hundred million. It makes it attractive at that point,” the superintendent said.

While Davis said the Board of Supervisors is unlikely to approve money for a new $100 million high school, he also said he was impressed by the study done by Moseley Architects, which has developed options for $88 million in renovations to the current HCHS building or construction of an all-new facility, pegged at $99 million. Based on that study, Davis said he leaning against the option of trying to upgrade the existing HCHS building, which he called “a lemon.”

The challenge before supervisors and school trustees is made more difficult by Halifax County’s other long-term spending obligations, including the $20 million-plus repair of the courthouse and commonwealth’s attorney’s office building.

“These are issues that normally don’t come around but every 50 years or so, and both of them have fallen on our watch,” he said. At HCHS, “we know something has to be done.”



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Comments

Mr. Davis needs to remember the old adage, When life gives you lemons you simply make lemonade. It worked for the middle school and it can work for the high school. ED#1 supervisor is pushing for land use taxation which would protect his crop insurance customers rather than see all County taxpayers pay their equal share and percentage of taxes. The tax revenue that has been lost in the now defunct AFD program could have been used for school funding, Halifax taxpayers need to wake up! The schools need attention and the good ole boys who don't have school age children are not the ones who should be making these important decisions.


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