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Legislation pushes 1¢ sales tax for schools / January 08, 2020
Mecklenburg County is seeking the authority to levy an additional 1 percent local sales and use tax to pay for school construction and upgrades under legislation that Del. Tommy Wright has introduced in the Virginia General Assembly.

The money would be used to pay for future construction projects, not for the county’s secondary school complex currently being built in Baskerville. Wright’s bill is patterned after legislation in the 2019 session that permitted Halifax County to impose a penny sales tax, subject to the approval of voters via an election referendum.

That bill, championed by Halifax delegate. James Edmunds, led to Virginia’s first-ever local option sales tax for school capital improvements. In November, Halifax County voters approved the referendum by a 71-29 margin.

According to County Administrator Wayne Carter, a similar tax in Mecklenburg would bring in upwards of $5 million annually to county coffers. By comparison, the 1 percent sales tax in Halifax is projected to generate about $3.3 million annually.

If the idea is successful, Virginia’s 5.3 percent sales tax would rise to 6.3 percent for purchases in Mecklenburg County.

House Bill 200, sponsored by Wright, would set a limit on a sales tax increase not to exceed one percent, as determined by the Board of Supervisors. Supervisors would be required to authorize the wording of any referendum to be presented to voters. The bill also requires the Board of Supervisors to specify in the enacting ordinance the time period, not to exceed 20 years, for when the tax would be imposed.

The bill also requires that revenue be used solely for capital projects for new construction or major renovation of schools.

The proposed tax would not apply to goods or services not subject to the state retail sales tax, such as groceries, medications and automobile purchases.

Wright’s bill was pre-filed for the 2020 General Assembly session that starts this week.

Supervisors and school trustees asked Wright and state Sen. Frank Ruff to introduce companion bills on the county’s behalf after seeing construction estimates for Mecklenburg’s secondary school complex rise from $120 million to nearly $153 million in less than a year. County and school officials had initially planned to spend about $150 million to build the high school-middle school complex and renovate three aging school buildings — Chase City, Clarksville and La Crosse elementaries.

So far, Ruff has not introduced a bill in the Senate on behalf of Mecklenburg County.

Supervisors and trustees have expressed agreement it would be wise to look for additional sources of revenue to pay for school improvements, without having to rely on property tax increases.

At Monday night’s meeting of the School Board, Superintendent of Schools Paul Nichols he had not discussed the legislation with Wright since before he introduced the bill, thus Nichols said he does not know how it will be received by members of the House of Delegates.

Edmunds’ bill giving Halifax County the authority to impose a local option sales tax sparked debate in the General Assembly over whether Virginia should relinquish its taxing authority to local government. Virginia is a Dillon Rule state — which allows local governments to undertake actions only as the state allows.

In the debate at last year’s General Assembly session, state Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, worried that allowing one locality to raise local sales taxes would open the floodgates for more cities and counties across the Commonwealth to follow suit. State Senator Emmett Hanger, R-Mount Solon, called the approach bad public policy.

Despite scattered opposition, Edmunds’ bill became law — with a key turning point coming when he revised the legislation to pertain solely to Halifax County.

Now that Mecklenburg is testing the same approach, Nichols said he accepts that advocates are in for a fight and that there is a chance the bill might not make it out of committee, but he feels strongly about pressing the issue.

Thus far, county residents have been spared from paying additional property taxes to fund school construction and upgrades.

Moving forward, Nichols said Mecklenburg schools will have a pressing need for dollars to pay competitive teacher salaries and fund new state-mandated positions, such as additional counselors for each school. Mecklenburg also will need more revenue to pay ongoing maintenance and improvements. Without taxing alternatives, local residents will be forced to cover those costs, which could mean increases to their property taxes.

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Thanks for nothing James Edmunds and Frank Ruff

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