Vote split on budget

Published 2:36 pm Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Cumberland County Board of Supervisors reached a near-split vote on approving the proposed fiscal year 2019 budget Tuesday, but the vote to approve the budget won out.

The vote was three to two, with District Five Supervisor Parker Wheeler, District Three Supervisor and Chairman Kevin Ingle and District One Supervisor William “Bill” Osl voting in favor of passing the budget and District Two Supervisor Lloyd Banks and District Four Supervisor David Meinhard voting in opposition to the proposed budget.

The board also voted in favor of passing the fiscal year 2019 tax rates and the five-year capital improvement plan.

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Members of the public offered input on the budget, which is expected to have a shortfall of approximately $500,000.

Potential ways to cover the shortfall, Giles said during the April 10 meeting, could include two items under negotiation that could total $600,000; repealing the county’s land use tax program applicable to forest and agriculture or increasing the real property tax rate by 5.5 cents.

The approved budget does not raise the real property tax or repeal the county’s land use tax program.

Meinhard, following the vote to approve the budget, asked the board to consider removing the county’s land use tax program, which he said could save the county approximately $600,000.

Land use taxation, which could apply to forestry and agriculture, was defined by Commissioner of Revenue Master Commissioner Julie Phillips Wednesday as a measure that potentially allows farmers and foresters the opportunity to defer a portion of the tax payments.

“As long as they qualify for the program, the deferral will remain,” Phillips said.

For agriculture, Phillips said landowners must have a minimum of 5 acres for agricultural use and provide a five-year history of operating as a bona fide farmer.

For foresters, Phillips said applicants must provide a minimum of 20 acres, have a forestry management plan written by a certified forester, including representatives with the Virginia Department of Forestry.

Offering a mock example, Phillips said for an acre of land assessed at $1,000, the landowner would pay approximately $600 for forestry land use, but would be deferred the remaining approximate $400.

Phillips said those with questions may contact the Commissioner of the Revenue’s Office at (804) 492-4280.

Meinhard said on Tuesday that repealing the tax could potentially be a more substantial way to treat the shortfall and balance the budget, referring to two potential items discussed during the April 10 meeting that, if approved, could could total $600,000.

“I know that’s very unpopular,” Meinhard said about potentially repealing the land use tax. “I don’t like it. But I also don’t like to pass any budget with a serious … revenue shortage.”

To consider repealing the land use program, County Attorney and Administrator Vivian Seay Giles said a public hearing would need to be advertised and held concerning potentially repealing the land use tax.

Ingle expressed concern about the decision, saying there would not be enough time to properly educate the public on the tax.

“If we were going to consider it, to do away with the land use, I think that would really entail an extended amount of time for us to get the public aware of this, exactly what is involved,” Ingle said about the programs. “It would be too much of an abrupt decision to have it set and do it this day. I just think awareness should be made.”

Osl, Ingle and Wheeler voted in favor of keeping the land use tax, and Meinhard voted in favor of looking into repealing the land use tax. Banks abstained from the vote.

Banks said his concern of the tax relates to those who may benefit from the land use tax who live outside of Cumberland.

“The majority of the benefit is going to those outside of the county,” Banks said, noting the land use tax for those in the timber industry. “We’ve got a half of a million dollar gap here between what we are approving to spend and what we have coming in … If we’re not going to address land use, then you’ve either got to cut the budget back or look at increasing the taxes … Yes, there is potential we may have some increased revenue, but it’s not one source, it’s several sources, and the idea that all of those sources are just going to come into play is simply unrealistic.”

Ashley Long, a member of the public, spoke during a public comment period following the budget approval and suggested that the board create a committee to fully investigate the fiscal budget in future years.

Long said the committee could include “two to three people that can reach all age brackets, come together, and actually create something for a plan where we can bring in revenue.”

Larry Thompson, of Cumberland, said the land use tax, for him and others in the county, is a part of how they make a living in the agricultural industries and said repealing the land use would affect their industry.

“Go and talk to some of these farmers,” Thompson said. “Understand what these people are doing. It’s not even they’re trying to save money, they’re trying to live.”