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Sales tax favored as way to fund HCHS work, but obstacles lie ahead

SoVaNow.com / July 02, 2018
Halifax County has a steep hill to climb to rebuild or renovate Halifax County High School, but school officials already have a path in mind to secure the money necessary for the task.

With a price tag of somewhere around $100 million, Halifax County would have to set aside around $5.1 million annually to handle annual debt service payments on a modernized facility, according to Hailfax County School Board Chairman Joe Gasperini. The architectural firm advising the School Board has presented two options: an $88 million renovation that includes a reconstructed building wing for career and technical education and STEM classes, or an all-new facility for 1,500 students, costing $99 million.

Trustees also want to renovate Tuck Dillard Stadium at an estimated cost of $8.9 million.

The financial impact of improving HCHS will fall heaviest on local taxpayers, but officials hope to spread the burden around by adding a local option sales tax of one percent to the county’s portfolio of local levies. A penny local sales tax — on top of the existing 5.3 cent state levy — would bring in somewhere around $3.5 million annually that could go towards financing the high school upgrade. The remaining cost would likely have to be covered through property tax increases.

Major obstacles lie ahead, however, before the county can count on a sales tax to boost the pot of money available for HCHS. For one thing, the sales tax would have to be approved by county residents via a voter referendum. For another, Halifax County does not even have existing authority to impose the levy.

Del. James Edmunds plans to introduce legislation in the 2019 session of the General Assembly that would permit localities, pending voter approval, to assess local option sales taxes for school facility needs. Virginia, as a Dillon Rule state, currently allows localities to impose only a narrow band of taxes, mostly based on property values.

“It’s a new revenue stream that really, in my opinion, wouldn’t be the burden that real estate or personal property [taxes] would be,” Edmunds said.

A local option sales tax was a key part of the 2013 transportation law signed by then-Gov. Bob McDonnell to pay for a backlog of transit projects in Northern Virginia. Edmunds said he has gained considerable support from lawmakers in poorer areas, especially Southwest Virginia, for the idea of using sales taxes to pay for projects in their home communities.

“Just because our kids live in poorer areas of the state doesn’t mean they’re any less entitled to a safe and good school building,” said Edmunds. “I don’t know how anyone argues that.”

The parent of a daughter at the high school, Edmunds said there’s no question HCHS requires a major upgrade. “Absolutely, there’s a great need — whether it’s renovation or rebuilding. As far as which, I don’t have the information to have a position on that.”

Edmunds said his legislation will stipulate that the local option sales tax expires once the project in question is paid for. He said he expects to attract a number of co-sponsors for his bill in the House of Delegates, although he has not yet drawn any firm backing in the state Senate.

“If there is a problem with making it statewide, I’ll ask to make it only for Halifax County,” he said.

Superintendent of Schools Mark Lineburg praised Edmunds for “really forward thinking on this,” he said. Edmunds is “creating legislation which I think is very dynamic that gives localities a sales tax that could solely fund school projects.”

Gasperini, board chairman, also expressed enthusiasm for the idea.

“The public is more apt to vote for a sales tax because it reduces [the reliance on] the real estate tax,” Gasperini said. Sales taxes are more broadly applied, and can draw money from travelers who live outside Halifax County, alleviating the burden on local residents.

Edmunds made the same point: “It catches tourism dollars.”

While a one-cent sales tax would generate a significant share of the needed financing — Gasperini estimated the revenue windfall would be $3.4 million — by itself it wouldn’t be enough to support $100 million in debt service for school facilities. “It’s going to make significant revenue, but it won’t do the whole job,” Lineburg said.

A penny increase in the county’s real estate tax rate generates about $370,000 in annual tax revenue, Gasperini said, which means a five-cent increase would be required for Halifax County to cover the remaining portion of the $5 million debt service for new facilities.

These calculations assume that Halifax County moves forward fairly quickly with construction work. If action is delayed, Moseley Architecture warns that projects could get even more expensive, with a projected six-percent inflation rate per year.

“Time is of the essence,” said Lineburg.

Lineburg has outlined a timetable for making a decision on whether to renovate or build a new high school that includes public meetings to solicit community input, as well as an August meeting of the School Board to consider refinements in the options set forth by Moseley Architecture. The superintendent has expressed a desire to break ground on the high school project by 2020.

If the School Board opts to build a new school — and the Board of Supervisors, which controls the purse strings, agrees — the facility would go up at a site adjacent to the current facility, creating minimal disruption at the high school. If renovation is the chosen approach for improving the high school, classes would have to be held in mobile units while work is under way.

Moseley Architecture vice president Stephen Halsey told trustees last week that the cost of simply fixing what’s broken or deteriorated at HCHS — deferred maintenance needs — adds up to $32.3 million. Meantime, the high school building has major design flaws that stand in the way of effective programming, especially in the areas of CTE (career and technical education) and science, technology and math (STEM) education.

As school trustees weigh what to do about the high school, they also face major decisions on the future of Tuck Dillard Stadium, which has gone without major improvements since it opened in the mid-‘60s, and the elementary schools, which also require significant maintenance, according to Halsey.

The combined cost of deferred maintenance at HCHS and the county’s elementaries exceeds $56 million, according to Halsey.

With five of Halifax County’s elementary schools serving populations of around 200 students or less — Scottsburg, Sinai, Sydnor Jennings, Meadville and Clays Mill — consolidation is practically inevitable, school officials said. Lineburg cautioned that HCPS will “take this one step at a time,” but that “the configuration of elementary schools in our county will change.”

Gasperini said of the question of consolidation, “It’s not a difficult one. A school of 520 [students] is a good number as far as efficiency.” He added that it is difficult to maintain so many aging elementary schools. “You couldn’t afford it. If you consolidate it saves money, over $20 million in immediate [repairs],” Gasperini said.

School officials are divided on how quickly to tackle the issue of elementary school renovations or even possibly the construction of new school facilities to replace existing ones. Sandra Coleman, trustees vice-chair, said that she believes that the elementary school question will have to wait until Halifax County settles on an answer for the high school. She also noted that the debt service on Cluster Springs Elementary and South Boston Elementary is ongoing, and those obligations should paid off before the county tackles other elementary facility improvements.

Lineburg said he concurs with that view, but Gasperini disagrees.

“For every year you wait, the cost [of the elementary schools] goes up $8.8 million,” he said. “If you wait, then its costs will be more. You have to work out some formula that as the debt is being reduced, you move those funds to the elementary,” he said. “Just burying you head in the sand and saying we do nothing until we pay off the debt … the cost will be more.”

Gasperini also said he favored separate action to fix another expensive problem — the football stadium — because lumping that project in with the others will cut off any possibility of attracting private sponsorship for the stadium renovations. “If you do public-private then you get private money,” he said.

A successful campaign to renovate the stadium also “would build momentum to roll right into a new high school right after it,” he said.



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Delegate Edmunds was on the Board of Supervisors when they created Ag and Forestal Districts which has given large land owners BIG taxe breaks, including HIMSELf, HIS MOTHER, and friends of his. It is a net loss of taxes to Halifax County for the last 8 yrs that if it had been collected and saved, would go a long way towards paying for a new school. He states, “It’s a new revenue stream that really, in my opinion, wouldn’t be the burden that real estate or personal property [taxes] would be,” well that's because HE does not want to pay his full share of real estate taxes. Beware residential Halifax County taxpayers, a new form of tax relief is being considered by the leaders of this county and Delegate Edmunds is simply coming up with a "new revenue stream" which is nothing but a new TAX, in order to institute permanent land use taxation, in which large landowners who farm will be given big breaks from real estate taxes, including himself.

Comments

Do the leaders of the county believe that buildings do not need routine maintenance? Build a stadium in 1965 and do absolutely nothing to upgrade or maintain it and then 53 years later act with surprise and astonishment that there is a substantial cost to letting buildings and facilities fall apart. Same thing with the highschool….very surprised that it is old, falling apart and the fact that deferred maintenance on the highschool is $32 million and for all schools is $56 million tells anyone all they need to know about Halifax County government. Throw in the complete lack of any action on the courthouse for the past three decades and Halifax County leadership, or lack of leadership, has stuck the citizens of Halifax County with a bill for close to $150 million. As for everyone crying "no taxes" you got what you wanted and now you will have to pay more taxes now instead of a little bit each year for the past 50 years.


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