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Speakers urge more money, rollback of fees / March 21, 2013
Halifax County supervisors will move forward with final revisions to the county budget after listening Monday night to nearly two dozen speakers, some who sought additional funding for various causes and others who pleaded for relief from proposed fee increases.

The Board of Supervisors called the public hearing to get input on the county’s proposed $88.7 million budget, which goes into effect July 1, plus the accompanying tax and fee schedule. The advertised budget includes a 2 cent hike in the real estate tax rate, bringing it to 47 cents per $100, although supervisors have indicated they are likely to reject the proposed increase and leave the tax rate at 45 cents.

Also built into the budget are a passel of fee increases on items ranging from vehicle and motorcycle decals to dog tags to vending machine fees. The fee increases are projected to generate an estimated $638,850 in new revenue.

Citizens who turned out for Monday’s hearing alternately pressed the supervisors to give greater financial support to the schools, local cultural institutions and agencies, or to back off their plans to raise fees, which opponents said which impose an unacceptable burden on residents and businesses already struggling with a tough economy.

The board’s Finance Committee will meet today at 3 p.m. to develop final recommendations to bring back to the full board on April 1, said panel chairman Doug Bowman. At the April 1 meeting, supervisors are expected to finalize the real estate tax rate and set the school budget for the 2014 fiscal year.

Two school trustees were among the 21 speakers who addressed supervisors at Monday’s hearing. Dick Stoneman and Roger Long both appealed for greater county funding for the school division, which faces the prospect of further program cutbacks after years of lean budgets. In keeping with the General Assembly’s call for a 2 percent salary increase for teachers, the School Board has earmarked money for the raises, but trustees also want to include support personnel who were left out of the state-funded increase.

Stoneman, the School Board’s vice-chairman, said trustees fear Halifax County may be losing good teachers to other areas, one reason the 2 percent pay hike is needed. “We’ve got to be competitive to keep our best teachers,” said Stoneman. The School Board also wants to be consistent in granting all employees a 2 percent hike, which will require $308,961 in local funding.

Stoneman asked that the Board turn over a larger share of the revenue generated by the county’s new meals tax, which was enacted, supporters note, with the expressed purpose of boosting funds for education. “When you get the estimated $250,000 [in meals tax revenue], please consider the school system,” said Stoneman

The School Board members, however, were not the only speakers who asked the supervisors for more money.

Also addressing the Board on Monday were two representatives of The Prizery. Barbara Speece, Prizery board president, noted that the Town of South Boston is expected to earmark $20,000 for the performing arts center, and while she presented a request to the supervisors for $75,000, she said she would be happy to get $20,000.

Speece noted that The Prizery has served as a home for a school pre-K program for the past six years, which she believes has led to improvements in math and science and boosted the self esteem of students. The Prizery is also frequently visited by students in the school Gifted and Talented program, she noted.

Also approaching the supervisors for additional funds was county Tourism Director Linda Shepperd, who described her agency as a “revenue generator” for the area. Citing one example, she pointed to an upcoming fish festival that is expected to draw some 7,000 visitors, many of whom will pay lodging and meals taxes during their time here.

Shepperd has asked for $120,000 for the tourism budget; the supervisors have countered with $106,120. The $120,000 figure amounts to 65 percent of the meals and lodging tax revenue that is generated by tourism in Halifax County. “Your support gives us the means to support the … activities of other agencies,” Shepperd told supervisors.

Larry Harris with the Longwood Small Business Office asked the supervisors to restore a proposed cut of $10,728. He stressed that the local contribution is matched on a 1-to-1 basis by the U.S. Small Business Administration, and losing both both the local and federal appropriation would cost his office a total of $21,476.

Beth Coates of the South Boston-Halifax County Museum asked the supervisors for $14,000, after the Board received a staff recommendation to cut out all funding. Without help from the county, Coates said she feared the museum would have to curtail its hours more than it already has this spring.

Library director Joe Zappacosta also spoke of the need for more support. Having asked for $192,000, the library is recommended to receive $175,000, the same allocation in the current budget. Pointing out that he has had to cut hours of operation at the Halifax library branch, Zappacosta noted that 400 people pass through the two local branches each day. Some use library resources to find jobs; others, including students, rely on the library for help and knowledge. Without more funding, Zappacosta said hours of operation may need to be reduced.

Along with speakers who asked for more money, however, there were citizens who pressed the supervisors to shelve plans to raise more revenue through higher fees.

“I’ve never asked for a dime, but I’m here to protect my interest,” Thomas Hines of Nathalie told board members. “We have to consider what money there is and make every dollar go as far as we can and where it’s most needed.”

Hines said he grew up on a farm barefooted with holes in his britches, and added, “Let me keep my little money and live as best I can” without higher taxes and fees.

Hampton Hazelwood, retired after working for 48 years, agreed: “I hate to see fees increased. We don’t have much left to live on. It seems that the schools are teaching the grandchildren to be good salesmen.”

Josephine Scearce said she lives on a fixed income and can’t afford higher license fees that the supervisors are considering. “We need jobs in Halifax County. Are we paying someone to find jobs here?” she asked.

Wendell Anderson urged the board to keep taxes down. “I don’t know what school our county administrator went to, but I know I got a tax increase.”

Two speakers, Billy Hanks and Donnie Hudson, both of whom are in the business of coin-operated vending machines, protested a proposal to quadrupke the license fee for vendors. “Such an increase [going from a $25 fee to $100] will pretty much put me out of business,” Hudson said.

Billy Carson suggested that supervisors look at the county checkbook just as they would their own. Collect delinquent taxes, stop wasting money on things like a $45,000 study for the fairgrounds, and stop giving the IDA money, he suggested.

Kent Mills, who said he had just moved back to Halifax County, said some fees were “so low that business license fee increases of 60 to 70 percent are very reasonable. But I feel sorry for the peddler who is facing a 900 percent increase and the fortune teller whose fees will rise by 500 percent,” he added.

Bernard Mitzler shared two thoughts: animal license fees should be raised only for dog owners who do not spay or neuter their pets; and the School Board should move on closing two schools as called for in last year’s Efficiency Study. “Where I came from, they closed several small schools and people are all still there,” he said.

Cheryl Watts commended the board for looking at ways to raise new revenue by increasing fees rather than raising property taxes. She said she feels that user fees are the best way to generate revenue and are more equitable than always raising taxes.

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Kent, you need to move back where you came from. Fees don't need to go up. It is like the guy from up north that moves down here and then says that is not the way we did it up north. Schools don't need more money. Herndon, is messing with peoples salary and saving money. Bet dick stoneman did not say why she got an $8000 bonus. Cut the school budget. I would like to see how much money Longwood SBC brought in with its help. Cut the IDA, cut the library, cut the Prizery.

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