From the Editor’s Desk — Prince Edward has no good options here

Published 6:46 pm Wednesday, December 7, 2022

The comments started pouring in almost as soon as we published the story. After failing to get the General Assembly’s permission to increase sales tax last year, Prince Edward County’s board of supervisors want to try again. Their goal is to use the money to repair and possibly replace Prince Edward County Elementary, which as we’ve documented before, is definitely in need of help.

But nobody likes hearing that sales tax might go up. And so, after reading that story, people posted comments on our social media pages and sent emails to The Herald. They didn’t see why prices should go up for everyone, especially when many of them don’t have children. And at a time like this, they argue, why should we have to worry about another price hike, this time possibly self-inflicted?

The problem is there are no villains here. The reality is there just aren’t any good options. No matter what path gets chosen, there’s going to be a problem.

Prince Edward schools need repairs

If there’s one thing that affects everyone, it’s the local economy. Before a company moves in, they look at the schools. I’ve had business owners tell me that multiple times over the years. They’re not just looking at an area’s current workforce. They want to know what it’ll look like in 10, 15 years down the road. And so they look at test scores. They research graduation rates. They check if children are learning with up to date tools. Now let’s say you want a company to come into Prince Edward. Is a leaky roof, classrooms that can’t be used due to poor conditions and ongoing traffic problems an attractive sell, when you’re talking about the state of the school district?

There’s also the issue of students leaving. No parent wants their child to learn in a run-down school building. They want to give the best opportunity possible, with the best available tools. If Prince Edward County can’t offer that, you’d best believe some residents will take their children out of the public schools and send them elsewhere. Or they might just leave for another county. Neither of those options benefits this area.

And so, the supervisors want to find money to repair the buildings. It’s not like there are pots of cash just sitting around, so it has to come from somewhere. The American Rescue Plan Act money is being used to fill in other construction-sized problems across the county, so that can’t be used. The extra school repair funding from the state has also been allocated, to fix additional needs at the middle and high school. This was done because the needs at both schools are smaller and can be fully fixed with the state’s extra allotment.

But that still leaves the problem of what to do about Prince Edward Elementary. Current estimates project a sales tax hike would bring in between $3 million to $3.5 million a year. That’s enough to fix the elementary school and have some on hand, preparing for the next issue. I mean, let’s be realistic here. Right now, it’s the elementary school. How long before the middle school and high school face the same thing?

What can Prince Edward residents afford?

But even knowing the needs, there’s the flip side of the argument. At what point will people no longer pay? Let’s say you have a choice between shopping locally at a Prince Edward County store or buying the same item online. If the price is the same, you go local, right? But what if the exact same item costs less buying through Etsy or Amazon? That’s the challenge when you raise sales tax. If you increase the cost, will that drive some shoppers, and potentially business owners away? Again, it goes back to the selling point. “Come shop here. Our prices are higher than the next county over” just doesn’t have a good ring to it.

And then we come to the other question here. Can people afford a sales tax hike, even if it is just 1%? It’s been a rough year, with inflation taking off and the global supply issues nowhere near being fixed. Prices have spiked as is, so it’s understandable that local residents would be less than excited about possibly having sales tax go up. Especially when it comes right after they received a bit of sticker shock, from a much larger personal property tax bill than expected.

Add all this up and you have families forced to scale back purchases in some cases. A portion of the population in Prince Edward live paycheck to paycheck as it is. I’ve been there myself in times past. You balance the budget down to the last dollar and in the best of times, it’s a circus act. Make one wrong decision or see one thing change and suddenly you’re forced to make some uncomfortable decisions.

That’s what residents are thinking about, when they hear the word tax hike.

Nothing’s set in stone

Now, to be clear, nothing’s been decided. First off, even if the Assembly votes to approve a potential sales tax hike in Prince Edward County, that’s not a guarantee it will happen. There are two steps to take before a hike can go into effect. First, the state has to say ok. Second, residents would have to approve it in an election referendum.

So we’re all talking about a “what if” at this point. But even so, we need to start having this discussion, because the issue isn’t going away. Prince Edward Elementary won’t suddenly be brand new when you drive over tomorrow to pick up your children. Residents won’t suddenly have a massive windfall in their bank accounts, to afford more.

Do we really want a sales tax increase? And if not, what are we willing to give up to fix the school and other issues to come? As I said before, there are no good options here. But we need to focus on the one causing the least amount of pain.

BRIAN CARLTON is the editor for The Farmville Herald and Farmville Newsmedia, LLC. He can be reached at Brian.Carlton@FarmvilleHerald.com.