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Opinion

Welcome to silly season

SoVaNow.com / March 14, 2019
Taking a cue from the sports world, Halifax County has embarked on its own version of silly season — with the math and posturing to match.

Sorting out the claims and counterclaims about how much it will cost to fix our woeful high school, and how much county citizens will pay in additional taxes as a result, is a five-alarm Advil experience waiting to happen. Pro tip: Wait a while before you put too much stock in anyone’s estimates.

This week, the Halifax County School Board met to discuss the high school project, which in the trustees’ eyes should consist of an all-new facility costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $99 million to replace the embarrassing HCHS building that we now have. I’ve made no secret of my preference for a new school — then-Halifax County Senior High School opened in 1979, the same year double-breasted polyester dance suits were in style, and both relics have aged equally well — but others no doubt will see the matter differently.

We got a taste of that Monday night when two speakers at the School Board meeting, Kathy Fraley (who is running for ED-1 trustee) and Phyllis Smith (who used to represent the area on the School Board), came forth to challenge the trustees’ plan to build a new school. Interestingly, the two women’s views aligned neatly with those of J.T. Davis, ED-1 supervisor, who has been highly critical of the $100 million school plan. More on that in a moment.

Fraley and Smith gave presentations that were chockful with numbers on what other localities are doing to improve their school facilities, including Mecklenburg County. I happen to know a few things about that particular situation with our sister paper down the road, The Mecklenburg Sun. Mecklenburg’s new school — a combined middle school-high school complex to serve students in grades 7-12 — is likely to cost around $120 million, with room for a larger school population than HCHS. Superficially, there may be some valid comparisons to draw between the two counties’ projects. But here again, I’d urge caution. Like snowflakes, every school design is different: beware facile comparisons that don’t speak to the details that arise with different projects, different communities, different educational priorities — the works.

Even if you think our School Board’s handiwork on a new school is lacking, a big problem with going back to the drawing board at this point is timing: Halifax has a narrow window of opportunity (i.e., this November) to pass a sales tax referendum to pay a major share of a new HCHS. Ripping up the School Board plan (developed by a very reputable firm, Moseley Architects) and developing a new one would be a nearly impossible task at this point: even if the designers could uphold their end of the bargain, there would still be the challenge of getting the Halifax County Board of Supervisors on the same page with the School Board and vice versa — all in time to draw up and approve a draft referendum to place on the November ballot. How many all-nighters are people willing to put into this grand endeavor? Trust me on this, the work product with all-nighters tends to be ... suboptimal.

Our new motto for rallying the community is “Team Halifax.” Team Halifax went to Richmond and proved the Doubting Thomas contingent (I serve as its president) wrong by convincing the General Assembly to give Halifax County the right to vote on its own 1-cent sales tax for financing the new school. It was an incredible feat: along with top-notch work by Del. James Edmunds, local leaders such as Dennis Witt, Joe Gasperini, Halifax County Chamber director Mitzi McCormick and many others went to the capital to argue the case for Halifax County. So now we’ll return home and fight battles that should have been fought and settled before anyone deigned to drive to Richmond? C’mon people.

Because the School Board plan is naturally subject to “a second opinion” — the stated reason for the Board of Supervisors hiring its own architect — this doesn’t imply the plan is a bad one. In fact, the Moseley design strikes me as excellent. Can improvements be made? Sure. Can dollars be shaved off the $99 million price tag? Likely again, the answer is yes. In conducting a facilities tour of the existing high school a few months back, HCHS Principal Michael Lewis voiced a desire that I thought was spot-on: to save the Blue Comet gym, one of the largest in the state. (As noted earlier, we no longer build high school facilities like HCHS in this enlightened day and age. That doesn’t mean that we children of the ‘70s got everything wrong.) Our current-day Comet basketball team (a truly fantastic bunch) showed what happens when Blue Heaven starts to rock. I agree with Lewis: it would be great to save the gym, and perhaps more than a few dollars. Whether it’s feasible to do so in the context of the broader objective is to be determined.

Speaking of context: I’ve been wondering about the property tax numbers that people have been throwing out for paying for a new school. All the math at this point is happening on the back of a napkin, so again, take it with a grain of salt. (We’re going to kill each other in 2019 with dueling metaphors.) The aforementioned J.T. Davis threw out a number at the Board of Supervisors meeting earlier this month: an 11 cent increase in the real estate tax, on top of the proposed local sales tax. I was curious where Davis’ number came from, so I asked.

Quite graciously, the ED-1 supervisor showed me his math: it’s based on a $195 million lifetime estimate for the debt service on a $100 million school project. The $195 million figure comes from Davenport, a very reputable financial advisory firm, so I’ll take it at face value. Davis calculated that a local sales tax would raise $3 million annually (hence I have come to find out the number is closer to $3.3 million), which, just to keep the math simple, works out to $60 million in dedicated revenue over time. (The sales tax referendum would be limited to 20 years.) This leaves a balance of $135 million. I’ll skip a whole bunch of math here except to note a penny in real estate tax generates about $377,000 in new revenue; if you do the division you’ll find that it will take roughly a 12-cent property tax increase to handle the debt service that isn’t covered by the sales tax. This is fifth-grade level arithmetic, which is why I’m glad cell phones have built-in calculators nowadays.

There’s one big problem with Davis’ numbers: $195 million is a greater sum than $100 million because there’s a rising cost of money over time. (This is why there’s such a thing as interest rates, to say nothing of inflation.) While the ED-1 supervisor has accounted for the cost of money in his 30-year estimate for a new high school, it’s a completely ignored factor on the revenue side of the equation. In other words, tax revenues in 2049 will not be equal to tax revenues in 2019; they’ll grow (without rate increases), because prices go up, we purchase more stuff, and cost inflation of taxable goods, at least some of them, will go up. The county’s property tax base also will grow; in fact, lots of things could happen in the next 30 years to raise revenue and blow up back-of-the-napkin calculations. (Maybe Halifax County can score its own Microsoft-style project, which is another reason why comparisons of tax rates, revenues and expenditures in Halifax and Mecklenburg should be handled carefully.)

Bottom line: No one has a good handle yet on the tax impact of an all-new school, but my own back-of-the-napkin math suggests any real estate increase is likely to be a lot lower than the number Davis is throwing out. Given that faulty tax estimates are prone to taking on a life of their own, unkillable and zombie-like, it would behoove our local leaders to dial down the casual claims and put more work into the high school initiative. We’ve got one chance to get this thing done, maybe only one chance to revitalize the community itself. A little discretion and judgment in presenting an accurate summary of the project isn’t going to hurt anyone.

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