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Taboo no more

SoVaNow.com / April 13, 2017
Well, lookie here — the Town of South Hill has an interesting proposal to fund its annual operating budget: a cigarette tax. Quelle horreur! cried no one in the recorded history of Southside Virginia, ever. (Okay, maybe my French teacher from high school has said this sort of thing before.) There was a time when loose talk about taxing cigarettes would have gotten you locked up in the curing barn with the key tossed away in the field, but those days are apparently gone forever. You’ve come a long way, baby.

South Hill’s budget for the coming fiscal year includes a town-wide 30 cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes, which, because I’ve never encountered any taxing authority in the region willing to commit such heresy, I didn’t even know was possible. (Virginia as a rule grants very limited taxing authority to localities, although sales taxes of all stripes seem to be okay.) According to South Hill’s town manager, Kim Callis (a very capable guy), there are 91 local governments in the Commonwealth that levy cigarette taxes, although mostly these are towns and cities. Only two counties have the tax. Still, if the idea flies in South Hill, how long will it be before other Southside localities jump on the cigarette tax gravy train?

Aside from the per-pack tax surcharge, the first of its kind in the region, the South Hill budget is notable for its heft: the projected general fund balance clocks in at $14.3 million, a far greater sum than what South Boston has planned for its budget in the coming year. (Local budgets take effect July 1 and run through June 30, 2018.) South Boston’s estimated budget for FY 2017-2018 is $10.8 million, which obviously is significantly less than what South Hill is looking at. The Town of South Boston budget for the coming year also is $2 million below the amount for the current year ($12,810,664). A lot of people will look at these spending numbers — $14 million-plus for South Hill, below $11 million and falling for South Boston — and wonder what’s up. South Hill, after all, has less population than South Boston. Are members of South Hill Town Council looking forward to pre-game repasts of foie gras and caviar before each of their meetings in 2017-2018? Have our neighbors an hour to the east gone French on us?

‘Tis a seeming mystery, the fiscal disparities between these two fairly similar towns, yet there’s a straightforward explanation for why South Hill would propose a budget that is so much larger than South Boston’s: a lot more is happening there that requires a local government buy-in. First and foremost, South Hill is getting an all-new hospital — VCU Health Community Memorial is building a state-of-the-art, 70-bed facility that is due to open later this year — and the town has to pony up beaucoup bucks to reroute traffic around the area. Not coincidentally, South Boston’s upcoming budget is a lot smaller than the current budget for the same reason: the town has finished up work on several traffic projects that drove up the spending numbers in the current year. Taking the picture as a whole, I guess the question is this: Would you rather have your hometown hew to a minimalist budgetary path that’s straight outta Deadsville? Or would you prefer to spend some money to make some money? I realize this either/or scenario isn’t as simple as it sounds, and communities must be extremely careful not to commit precious dollars to unproductive endeavors. Yet given the choice, I’d take South Hill’s situation over South Boston’s any day. Just something to think about the next time someone jumps up with a another tired complaint about the evils of government profligacy.

And yes, if a cigarette tax is part of the answer for how to pay for necessary expenditures, so be it. The fact that new hospital construction happens to be a driving force behind South Hill’s imposition of a cigarette tax is poetic, but it’s hardly necessary. In fact, it’s hard to think of another tax that I’d choose to raise first. Now that the tobacco tax taboo has been broken in Southside, it’ll be interesting to see if other localities follow.

***

Halifax County has its own big tax-and-spend questions to chew over, led, of course, by the Courthouse Project (which appears to be mostly a done deal) and the proposed renovation/reconstruction of the high school. As it happened, I had business last week at the Courthouse, and it’s always helpful to walk inside the building and be reminded of its disgraceful condition when contemplating the $17 million or so that we’ll have to spend to bring it back from oblivion. Seriously, the Courthouse should never have been allowed to deteriorate to its current state. I’m all for letting bygones be bygones, but before anyone blames local judges for insisting on improvements — or the Board of Supervisors for acceding to their demands — perhaps someone ought to ask the folks in charge of overseeing the Courthouse for the past few decades what they were doing to address its obvious issues. Not much, apparently.

Which brings us to the high school: This week, Jimmy Epps with B&B Consultants presented a report, commissioned by the School Board, that offered cost estimates for upgrading the facility’s core (HVAC, ADA-compliant bathrooms, fire suppression systems, that sort of thing) versus construction of a new high school. The bottom line: renovating the building, not including the cost of new surfaces, equipment and such, will require around $22.6 million, compared to $78 million for an all-new HCHS building. Sounds simple enough, right? Even newspaper columnists can solve math such as this.

Yet I dunno. The idea of replacing the courthouse was always a non-starter because of the history, aesthetics and community identity wrapped up in the existing building. The high school, by contrast, is just sort of a dud. HCHS is a big unwieldy block of dull brick and concrete, reflecting the ‘70s architectural style that, let’s face it, hasn’t aged especially well. (Who ever does?) Just as you wouldn’t want to go out on the town wearing a leisure suit, I’m not sure Halifax County is well-represented by having its signature school housed inside a misbegotten, bunker-like structure that sprang from the same creative mindset that gave us disco music. (Although to be fair, a little bit of Abba still does go a long way in this world.)

One of the best things this county ever did was the renovation of Halifax County Middle School. That project took an aging, tattered facility and made it gleaming and new — but it also leveraged a classical building design by adding a welcome amount of glass and gloss and open interior spaces. Folks can talk about the “good bones” of the existing HCHS building till the cadavers come home, but Frankenstein’s monster had pretty good bones, too, and we all know how that turned out. At this point, too many questions remain unaddressed to know whether Halifax County would be best served by spending $30 million or $80 million to fix HCHS, and while I grant that fifty million dollars’ difference is a high hurdle to clear, I don’t think the question should be decided before all the facts are in. The next 40 years is a long time to live with a building that you wouldn’t think to build if you were starting it today. Good bones or not, outward appearances do count.





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