Prince Edward wants to try again for sales tax increase

Published 3:54 am Friday, November 17, 2023

FARMVILLE – Prince Edward County supervisors want to give it one more try. During their Thursday, Nov. 9 meeting, the board unanimously voted to ask the state’s permission to put a sales tax increase in place. Now doing that, as many folks are aware by now, requires a bill be created and passed through both the House of Delegates and the State Senate. That’s been the problem. 

The goal here is to increase sales tax by 1% in Prince Edward and then use that money to help pay for renovations to Prince Edward Elementary. Previous county administrator Wade Bartlett floated the idea in 2019 and since then, the county has tried time after time to get state approval for the concept. 

The question seems like an easy one. After all, eight other counties and a city in Virginia have asked the same question and been told yes. In Virginia, a city or county has to get permission from the General Assembly to increase sales tax. First the Assembly has to pass a bill, then local residents have to vote on it in the next election. That seems simple enough. Charlotte County, Gloucester County, Halifax County, Henry County, Mecklenburg County, Northampton County, Patrick County, Pittsylvania County and the City of Danville have all asked permission to raise the local sales tax by 1% and been told yes. But when it comes to Prince Edward County, for some reason, the answer is no. 

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Each year, the county tries and each time, the bill in question dies before even getting to a full floor vote. Take this past session, for example. Del. James Edmunds filed HB 1605 on Jan. 6 of this year, a bill that specifically only pertains to Prince Edward County getting permission to ask voters about a 1% sales tax hike. That same day, it went to the House Committee on Finance and on Jan. 19, it was assigned to a subcommittee. That’s where it died, not getting a vote before the Feb. 7 deadline. 

So what happens next? 

So why try again? Well, the Assembly looks a bit different than it did even a month ago, when Herald reporter Michael Hinman asked lawmakers if they would support the project. In the Nov. 7 elections, Democrats took control of both the Virginia House and Senate, which means new committee appointments and new roles for some lawmakers. 

“That 1% looks a little more promising now,” Board member Odessa Pride said. “Glad about that.” 

Prince Edward County Manager Doug Stanley agreed. 

“Well, I think (now) there may be some bi-partisan support,” Stanley said. 

He pointed out that the county already has someone willing to file the bill this year. Del. Tommy Wright has agreed to do it. 

“I’ve already spoken with Delegate Wright,” Stanley said. “Given the changes in the General Assembly, I’m at least hopeful that maybe we’ll get it out of committee and to a full vote on the floor.” 

Where would sales tax increase go? 

So any money received from the sales tax increase would go to help renovate Prince Edward Elementary. Last year, the county staff estimated that a 1% sales tax would generate between $3 million to $3.5 million annually. 

Prince Edward County supervisors already know the price tag for the renovations, which stands at $43.5 million. And they, along with county staff, want to try everything possible to cover that cost without having to raise property taxes. That 1% sales tax would cover the county’s yearly debt service on that bill, just like you pay down a big purchase on a credit card. To generate that same kind of revenue with property tax, it would take as much as 17 cents of real estate tax rate. It’s much easier to absorb that through sales tax. 

Now the concern, even from some state lawmakers, is that it’s not going to be the cure-all that’s expected. Speaking last month with The Herald, State Sen. Frank Ruff said he had no problem taking a vote on it or giving Prince Edward voters the ability to do the same. But he questions how much of an impact that will have, pointing to the lack of restaurants and retail out in the county. To be clear, this would affect businesses in the Town of Farmville as well, so we’re not just talking about the county. On the other side of that argument, county officials can point to growth like the expansion at Sandy River Distillery and the new Wawa coming in, to show that the potential for revenue is increasing.  
Ruff said he just doesn’t want Prince Edward, or any county, to get their hopes up, expecting a large windfall. County officials say they’re not expecting the funds to cover the full cost of construction or anything close, but however much is generated, that would be less needed from real estate tax hikes or grant funding. But above all, at this point, the county staff and elected officials just want to see it voted on. 

“If we can get Republican support and Democratic support, we can at least get it out of the committee level,” Stanley said. “We haven’t had that in the last two years.”