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Smoker tax runs into flak as South Boston puts off action

South Boston News
Coleman Speece accepts the key to the Town of South Boston and a framed resolution in his honor after serving as vice-mayor and member of Town Council since 2004. Speece sat for his final regular monthly meeting on Monday night; Sharon Harris, the top vote getter in the May town elections, will be seated on Council in July. From left,Council members Michael Byrd, Bob Hughes and Speece, Mayor Ed Owens, and council members Bill Snead, Tina Wyatt-Younger and Winston Harrell. (Henry Stevens photo) / June 14, 2018

South Boston Town Council on Monday night put off action on a proposed 25 cent-per-pack cigarette tax after a number of speakers at a public hearing criticized the levy as unfair and harmful to local businesses.

In a separate matter, Council voted narrowly to move May town elections to November — although one council member cautioned that the vote could be reversed once the newly-elected Council is seated next month.

Speaking out against the town’s proposed cigarette tax, Frank Armstrong, owner of Blue Ridge Tobacco, said he supported the stated reason for enacting the levy — to raise wages of the town’s lowest-salaried employees — but argued a cigarette tax is the wrong way to achieve that objective.

“Providing a livable wage to first responders and city employees, for which this tax is intended, is very important,” said Armstrong. “However, placing the burden of that tax on 25 percent of your population, the adult smoking population, is very unfair and not the right action to take.”

Blue Ridge Tobacco’s manager also spoke, warning the Council that such a tax would drive smokers to stores outside the town limits and cut into tax revenues from tobacco shops and other town businesses that sell tobacco products.

Another citizen who spoke at Monday night’s public hearing, Larry Anderson of South Boston, said he opposed taxation in all forms and suggested eliminating parks and recreation rather than impose a smoking tax.

Council members expressed their own reservations about the cigarette tax, which is projected to generate about $140,000 in annual revenue for town government. Vice Mayor Coleman Speece noted that roughly 40 percent of convenience store revenue comes from cigarette and tobacco sales. Council members Bob Hughes and Tina Wyatt Younger said they had concerns about the loss of business, and suggested the per-pack tax be reduced from 25 cents to 10 cents.

Council member Bill Snead said he would not support the tax. Michael Byrd and Winston Harrell agreed that there should be more discussion given to the tax, citing the need for additional revenue for the town. In earlier discussions, Council members have said they would prefer to leave unchanged other taxes that the town is authorized under state law to levy — including property taxes and the meals and lodging tax.

“We want those people who serve this city to have a quality of life,” said Byrd. “I think that it deems some type of other investigation so they can have quality of life so that we don’t lose people. We don’t lose policemen because they can make more in another county.”

“We have a Town Manager [Tom Raab] that’s like Rembrandt when it comes to financing and has done incredible things to save money and to put us in a [stable] position,” Hughes noted in explanation of why the tax was needed.

Council voted to send the matter to the finance committee for review, and in the meantime directed Town Manager Tom Raab to investigate alternatives to the tax to be proposed during the June work session.

The Town, under the Dillon Rule, can only tax businesses, real estate, personal property, meals, lodging, ticket admissions and cigarettes. Of those, only the admissions and cigarette taxes are not currently on the books.

In a separate matter, Town Council voted 4-2 to move May municipal elections to November. Raab affirmed that the Town Council elections would be tied to state elections on odd-numbered years and that council members elected in 2016 would lose the last six months of their terms. Council members raised the idea following a townwide election last month that drew a turnout less than 10 percent, which in turn was much higher than the historical average.

Byrd said he was unsure whether the move would have tangible impact on turnout, saying, “What have we, as a Council, done to promote this [election participation]?” He questioned whether Town Council was responsible for creating voter apathy. “If we don’t deem it important,” he said, “How can other people deem it important?”

While Younger joined Byrd in opposing the move, she offered a different reason for her vote, rejecting the idea that Council members had failed to work hard to generate interest in their races and raise turnout. Younger said she had worked diligently on her campaign, and by moving the election to November, when less engaged voters would be likely to take part, energetic and motivated candidates would be penalized in favor of candidates who aren’t.

“If I can get out of my house, if I can be uncomfortable, so can everybody else,” she said.

But other Council members commented that several members had run unopposed and received less than 100 votes, which raises questions about their standing to act on behalf of the town. Hughes said, “This, this is just not working. I think any person who looks at it logically cannot help but come to that conclusion.”

Thomas R. Elliot, owner of Elliot Electric and 72-year resident of South Boston, spoke out in support of the change before the Council vote. He said that he was wary of a radical religious organization hijacking Town Council elections. He cited the example of the Halifax County GOP, whose leadership was upended two years ago when church members who had not been active in local party affairs showed up and voted in a local minister, Todd McClure, to replace the longstanding party chair. Elliott warned that a similar situation could arise given that the Town Council elections have drawn so few voters.

Speece and Hughes echoed Elliot’s warning during a discussion of the matter.

“Three seats can be just taken away,” Hughes said. “We have some cities and counties that have been overtaken by radical religious groups.”

On the other hand, Mayor Ed Owens expressed deep concern that this would cause the elections to become a partisan affair. Younger noted that she wanted the election question to be added to the July agenda, and warned that with a change in the makeup of Town Council next month, the 4-2 vote in favor of November balloting is likely to be undone next month.

In other business, Town Council recognized outgoing member Coleman Speece, who had served 18 years on the Town Council but lost his re-election bid in May. Sharon Harris will join the group in July after leading the ticket in the May election.

“It is really an honor, has been an honor to serve with you,” said Owens. “You’re going to leave quite a big vacuum here, as I tell you, you gave so much and you give so much all the time, just not here but in all the endeavors that you do in our community.”

In a show of appreciation, Council presented Speece with a key to the town.

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