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Halifax County supervisors meet tonight with social distance measures in place

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Solar project groundbreaking pushed back

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Pannell, Ricketts elected as Board of Supervisors chair, vice-chair

South Boston News
Halifax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Hubert Pannell, right, with Vice Chair Garland Ricketts. / January 09, 2020
The Halifax County Board of Supervisors will be led by a new chairman and vice chairman in 2020.

On Monday night, board members named ED-3 supervisor Hubert Pannell as chairman for the upcoming year, and they also installed ED-7 supervisor Garland Ricketts as vice chairman.

Pannell and Ricketts were each voted in by identical 5-3 margins, with newly seated supervisors Dean Throckmorton (ED-5) and Calvin “Ricky” Short (ED-1) joining Jeff Francisco (ED-2) in rounding out the five-member majority.

Pannell beat out the longest serving member of the board, ED-8 supervisor William Bryant Claiborne, for the chairmanship. Claiborne drew support from Stanley Brandon (ED-6) and newcomer Ronnie Duffey (ED-4).

Brandon nominated Claiborne for the top leadership position, with Duffey offering a second. Francisco placed Pannell’s name into nomination, with Ricketts providing a second.

Pannell has served on the Board of Supervisors since 2014. Claiborne has served for two decades as a county supervisor.

In the vote for vice chairman, Ricketts was nominated by Short, with Francisco seconding the nomination. Claiborne placed Duffey’s name into nomination, with Brandon offering a second to Claiborne’s motion.

After being named chairman, Pannell issued seating assignments for the eight-member board and then thanked his wife and family for supporting him in his public career.

Pannell closed out the reorganization portion of Monday night’s board meeting — the supervisors’ first gathering of 2020 — by striking an optimistic note, saying he was “humbled” to accept the position of chairman. “Board members, let us all work together. Let’s go to work.”

In other action during the Monday night meeting, the first session of the new decade for the Board of Supervisors:

» By a 5-3 vote, members agreed to hire a lobbyist to press the case for legislation at the General Assembly giving counties a bigger cut in tax revenue from utility-scale solar energy projects.

Halifax, Charlotte and Mecklenburg county officials have formed a consortium to seek changes in state tax law that largely exempt solar developers from having to pay local property taxes. The tax code exempts 80 percent of the machinery and tools tax that utility-scale solar facilities would otherwise pay to local governments, leaving counties with a 20 percent revenue share.

“A lot of counties in Southside Virginia [are] not in love with the 80 percent tax exemption that is written into state code,” said County Administrator Scott Simpson.

Outlining an alternative approach, Simpson said area officials and solar developers have come up with a consensus solution — a revenue sharing approach patterned after coal severance taxes that coal mining operations pay to Southwest Virginia localities.

Severance taxes compensate Southwest counties for the adverse effects of coal mining, and a revenue sharing arrangement between Southside localities and developers of solar generation facilities would do much the same, Simpson said.

The current tax exemption does “not really offset the potential impacts of large-scale solar facilities,” he said.

However, solar developers and county officials disagree on the particulars of a revenue-sharing agreement, Simpson added. The solar industry is offering to pay a rate of 45 cents per kilowatt hour, which in the case of a 85-megawatt array, would yield about $78,000 in annual revenue.

Counties want to set the rate at 55 cents per MW hour — producing about $96,000 in revenue.

The difference could be settled at the General Assembly, if lawmakers pass legislation to revamp the taxing of solar projects. ED-2 supervisor Francisco argued that Halifax County should hire a lobbyist to push for the result most favorable to counties

“I think having somebody there is pretty important,” he said. If Halifax expects developers to support the higher 55-cent rate, “I think we’ll wait a long time for them to do so.”

Francisco proposed a spending cap of $5,000 for lobbying services, offering a motion that passed on a 5-3 vote. He was joined by Pannell, Ricketts, Throckmorton and Short in backing the idea.

Claiborne, Duffey and Brandon were opposed. “I’m really not in favor of gambling taxpayer dollars on lobbyists,” Brandon said.

He suggested that Halifax and other localities should seek consensus with solar developers on an approach that all sides can take to lawmakers in Richmond.

“If they [solar developers] are not pushed, they will try to get by as cheap as possible,” replied Francisco.

The 5-3 support for hiring a lobbyist was muddled by an exchange while members were in the middle of taking the vote. Claiborne asked members to pause and consider a suggestion offered by Duffey — that no former county supervisor should be hired to lobby on Halifax County’s behalf.

The county shouldn’t pay “someone we already beat” to serve as a lobbyist for the Board of Supervisors, Duffey said, drawing agreement from Claiborne: “It just doesn’t seem right,” Claiborne said.

In a second round of voting, board members rejected the idea of excluding former supervisors from consideration as lobbyist for the county. This time the vote was 4-3, with members sticking to their earlier votes in favor of the idea. The exception was Pannell, who abstained on the second vote.

» In other action, supervisors agreed to provide $25,000 in capital improvement funding to four county fire departments: Midway, Triangle, Halifax and Oak Level.

» Supervisors also passed a resolution to support the designation of an 11-mile stretch of the Staunton River from the US 360 bridge in Clover to Staunton River State Park as a Virginia Scenic River.

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