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Mecklenburg County supervisors back idea of local sales tax to pay for new school

SoVaNow.com / July 11, 2018
The Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors may be softening its funding cap of $100 million for the construction of a consolidated school complex as members look to the Virginia legislature for new ways to raise revenue for the project.

Halifax County Del. James Edmunds plans to introduce a bill in the 2019 session of the General Assembly that would allow localities to raise the state’s 5.3 cent sales tax to generate funding for capital projects such as new schools. The local option sales tax has been requested by the Halifax County School Board, which is looking to build a new high school in South Boston, and Edmunds has agreed to introduce the bill.

Counties that are currently barred under state law from imposing a local sales tax would gain a potent revenue-raiser if the legislation succeeds. In Mecklenburg, County administrator Wayne Carter projects that a penny increase in the sales tax would bring in about $4 million annually that could be used to support debt service on the county’s new high school/middle school complex.

Under Edmunds’ legislation, voters would have to approve the local option sales tax via a referendum before the levy could take effect. Once the school project is completed and the debt satisfied, the sales tax would “go away,” said Carter.

Dan Tanner called the resolution a “good idea” and along with members of the Budget and Finance committee, he recommended that the full board adopt a resolution in support of the tax, which members agreed to do. The action came at the regular monthly meeting of the Board of Supervisors on Monday.

Tanner also called on Carter to forward the resolution to local lawmakers, state Sen. Frank Ruff and Del. Tommy Wright, and to all localities in the GO Virginia Region 3 economic development area, which includes the cities of Danville and Martinsville, and counties of Amelia, Brunswick, Buckingham, Charlotte, Cumberland, Halifax, Henry, Lunenburg, Mecklenburg, Nottoway, Patrick, Pittsylvania, and Prince Edward.

GO Virginia is a bipartisan, business-led economic development initiative that collaborates on economic and workforce development activities.

If passed by the General Assembly and approved by voters, the $4 million in revenue from a one-cent local option sales tax could cover the county’s cost of the debt service on new school construction, or be used later to pay for planned renovations to existing elementary schools, said Carter. He also noted that it would take at least two years before Mecklenburg would realize any new monies from the tax.

Local option sales taxes were used in Northern Virginia to raise money for transit projects with approval of the 2013 statewide transportation bill under then-Governor Bob McDonnell.

Even if the county is able to tap a new source of revenue, board members cautioned the money must be spent first on facilities geared toward academics and, in the words of David Brankley, “spent wisely.” Supervisor Claudia Lundy, chair of the Joint Education Committee with members of the School Board, has been a vocal critic of the consolidated school design plan that includes a $10 million aquatic center and a $1 million agriculture education barn.

Supervisors Glanzy Spain and Brankley, both of whom serve on the joint education committee, said they were troubled by newspaper accounts in which school architects said they were forced to design smaller classrooms and jettison plans for an auditorium and ag barn due to funding constraints. Spain and Brankley expressed support for the sales tax resolution, calling it a fair way to raise revenue for school projects.

Board Chairman Glenn Barbour said from the start, he has been bothered by supervisors’ rigid adherence to a $100 million budget. While he did not say if he was for or against the sales tax resolution, Barbour explained his reservations with the current construction budget: “We put ourselves in a bind,” adding, “I said we won’t know the true cost until we get our pencils out.”

The School Board is seeking a budget of between $113 million and $125 million to build a 330,000 square foot school that includes classroom space for 2,500 high and middle school students, six career centers, part of the new career-focused curriculum, a 1,200 seat auditorium, an aquatic center, a 4,000 seat football stadium surrounded by a running track, 2,000 seat main gymnasium with two auxiliary gyms — one for the high and one for the middle school — a wrestling room, shared media center, separate teacher lounge and teacher development center, agriculture barn with classrooms and bathroom facilities, culinary arts center, and separate soccer, baseball, and softball fields and tennis courts for the high and middle schools.

Barbour and finance committee chair Gregg Gordon reinforced their opposition to building an “inferior school.” Gordon suggested that cost savings could come from moving the school site to a different location, one closer to Boydton. He did not identify a specific property but noted that to date, Mecklenburg County has not purchased a building site.

Brankley shared similar views, during the regular meeting of the board. He said residents across the county are “concerned” with what is being cut from the school design. These constituents, he said, support increasing the school construction budget by $8 million to $14 million and also believe supervisors should consider moving the school site “back down the road [toward Boydton] to cut some of the [anticipated] infrastructure costs. That’s their biggest concern.”

Currently, the county has a purchase option on land at the corner of Wooden Bridge Road and U.S. 58 in Baskerville. Officials have been working with VDOT to address traffic safety concerns from school buses and other vehicles entering and exiting the property.

Tanner asked when the county expected to close on that property. Carter said, “We can’t close until the highway [issues] are addressed.” Two weeks ago, the county submitted its traffic data report to VDOT. The information will be used by the department, according to Carter, to fix the number and location of exits from U.S. 58 to the proposed school site, and to resolve other traffic issues. He said it could take up to 60 days before VDOT will complete its study.

This prompted Jim Jennings to remark, “Obviously, we have a lot to resolve before we can close on land for the new school.”

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