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Catching up with the news / October 16, 2019
Twice each year in late summer and fall, The Sun sends out copies to everyone in Mecklenburg County (and quite a few people in Charlotte, Brunswick and Lunenburg) to introduce readers to our product during our annual subscription campaign. Ta da! — you’re holding the second of our two mass mailings in your hands. We hope you’ll like what you see.

Why subscribe to a local newspaper? Specifically, to The Sun? Let’s take that first question first. An essential feature of democracy is civic engagement — consent of the governed is only possible when people are aware of what’s going on in the world around them. That’s the role that the press fulfills in this scheme of things, to inform and enlighten readers. (On those occasions when we manage to amuse and entertain, well, consider that a bonus.) At the local level, newspapers provide citizens with the information they need to know when weighing in on matters of public interest. What should go on in the schools? Is there anything local leaders should do that they’re not doing now to make life better for the community at large? What’s up with the local court system? This sort of thing. Because it’s our job to keep track of local government and report community events, we provide the informational fulcrum for the back-and-forth debates that mark a healthy society. Put more plainly, we attend town council meetings so you don’t have to.

And not to brag unduly, but we think our coverage of the community is second to none — a testament to the hard-working staff of The Sun. But enough of this elbow-torquing back patting; even if you have only passing interest in local news, we think you’ll find much to enjoy in these pages. (Penny-pinching shoppers may especially enjoy the coupon-clipping inserts that are a regular part of The Sun.) A yearly subscription to this newspaper is only $16.00 for residents of Mecklenburg and adjoining Virginia counties, a bargain in today’s world. We invite you to sign up and help us do the job we are tasked to do — staying on tops of the news. Taking out a subscription is easy; there’s a flyer inside today’s edition with a postage-paid, addressed envelope attached which you can use to send in your subscriber information and payment, all intended to make the process as convenient as possible.

So thank you in advance for reading The Sun, and thank you especially to all the subscribers — new and returning — who already have made this year’s campaign a boffo success. One cannot work in the newspaper business without being keenly aware of the industry’s struggles in our bonkers digital age. It’s an issue that affects the world of journalism on countless levels, good and bad. Amid the tumult, we’ve been able to more than hold our own. Fingers crossed that we can continue to do so. It’s because of readers like you that we’re optimistic on that question.


Let’s spend a moment catching up on recent developments in the news:

» Mecklenburg County’s chances of building its middle school/high school complex on schedule and below budget were always iffy — as these things tend to be — but the prospects look decidedly dim after construction bids for the project came in higher than expected last month. The School Board has chosen to reopen the bidding with a wider group of general contractors expected to take part. The re-bid process may or may not yield a better deal on the school, but no one should be surprised if it doesn’t.

The low bid as it now stands is just shy of $130 million, ten million more than the Board of Supervisors budgeted for construction. This obviously isn’t great news, but let’s keep matters in perspective. Mecklenburg is currently on track to build a much-needed modern school facility without having to resort to a tax increase, and the county’s 42-cent real estate tax already is the lowest in the region — by a lot. In neighboring Halifax County, the property tax rate is 50 cents, and one county further west in Pittsylvania, the rate is 62 cents. If by some chance Mecklenburg finds itself in the position of having to raise more revenue to build the school, it’ll still be laying a light hand on taxpayer wallets. Comparatively speaking, of course.

Del. Tommy Wright, meantime, has been talking up the prospects for legislation that would allow county voters to authorize a local sales tax to pay for school capital projects. This comes on the heels of a successful effort in the most recent General Assembly session to allow a voter referendum in Halifax County on a 1 percent sales tax. Prior to passage of this bill, introduced by Halifax delegate James Edmunds, the only time the State of Virginia allowed local sales taxes was under the 2011 transportation package, which authorized additional sales taxes in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads to pay for transit improvements in those traffic-clogged regions. (The state’s retail sales tax is 5.3 cents. The NOVA and Tidewater local sales taxes did not require voter referendums.) Halifax County will get to impose the local penny tax only if voters go along with the idea, something we’ll presumably learn on Election Night. If a voter-approved sales tax increase flies in Halifax County, most of the state’s localities will almost certainly want to try their luck taking the idea to their electorates, too.

Halifax County badly needs a new high school — not as badly as Mecklenburg, of course, because you’d be hard-pressed to find facilities any more outdated than the Bluestone and Park View buildings, which ran past their sell-by dates sometime in the 1970s. The Halifax County sales tax is projected to generate about $100 million over 30 years, measured in present-day dollars, which would goes a long way towards paying the full cost of replacing Halifax County High School, a.k.a. a bloody mess of a building disguised as a high school. Mecklenburg’s stake in the outcome of this neighboring referendum is less acute with financing more or less in place for the new Baskerville school complex, but an extra revenue boost with a local sales tax would surely help. (After Mecklenburg County High School and Middle School are built, the county will face ongoing maintenance and building replacement expenses, and the elementary schools could use some work, too.) With I-85 running through the county, there’s no telling how much local sales tax revenue could be gained from the New York-to-Florida crowd that pops into town — visitors probably generate enough sales tax revenue in Mecklenburg to fix up an elementary school all on their own. In fact, it’s hard to name any county in Southside Virginia that would benefit more from outsiders paying a local sales tax. Still, the idea was first in Halifax.

Sales taxes have their pluses and minuses. The big minus is they fall heaviest on people of modest means, insofar as a higher share of their income must go towards paying the levy, while upper income individuals can bear the sales tax burden without even noticing. But while sales taxes may be regressive, it becomes a lot easier to justify their use when they serve progressive ends — such as building a new school for the education of our children. Mecklenburg County, for various reasons (cough cough Microsoft), hasn’t had to wrestle with the conundrum of having to sharply raise property taxes to build a new school, which is exactly the situation Halifax will find itself in if the referendum fails. It’s worth noting, too, that Pittsylvania County has 62-cent tax rate (a full 20 cents higher than Mecklenburg County) in part because it made expensive renovations to its schools more than a decade ago. (Pittsylvania County, with a land mass greater than Rhode Island, has four high schools and four middle schools. Let that sink into your cell phone GPS brain.)

Of course, it’s also worth noting that Pittsylvania’s high-by-comparison tax rate hasn’t stopped the county from doing better than most in the region economically. Pittsylvania’s economy is certainly stronger than Halifax’s, and perhaps Mecklenburg’s, too, although Microsoft’s presence here throws the comparisons out of whack. Point is, there could be something to the argument that communities that invest in their futures reap the benefits, even at the cost of defying strident anti-tax orthodoxy. Gotta spend money to make money, as they say in the business world. Why not say it in other contexts, too?

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