Prince Edward supervisors hire firm to push sales tax plan

Published 3:34 am Thursday, December 14, 2023

Prince Edward supervisors want some help to make sure their sales tax bill gets a vote in the General Assembly’s next session. To do that, they’ve hired a lobbying firm, Richmond-based Commonwealth Strategy Group, at a cost of $5,000 per month. To be clear, it was not a unanimous decision, as Supervisor Harrison Jones voted in opposition. 

“It’s another straw on the camel’s back,” Jones said, questioning if the county could afford this, along with all the other bills coming due soon. 

This isn’t the county’s first time contracting with Commonwealth. In fact, supervisors signed on with them last year to attempt the same thing. That didn’t exactly go as planned. The goal was to draw attention to the request, to get more Assembly members in support. Instead, the bill died in committee. 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 crossover deadline. This makes two years straight where Edmunds filed the same bill, only to see it shot down.  

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And if the name Commonwealth Strategy Group sounds familiar beyond the county, that’s because the group has also done some lobbying for Piedmont Regional Jail. Supervisor Jerry Townsend, who serves as Superintendent for Piedmont Regional Jail, endorsed the group and said hiring a lobbyist makes the most sense. 

“I think it’s a smart move, this strategy and they are really good,” Townsend told other supervisors during their meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 12. 

Why no support?

So if the firm worked with Prince Edward last year, why was the county’s bill left to die in committee? The answer, state lawmakers say, is poor timing. 

The bill focused just on Prince Edward was set aside and replaced last year by a different version. This second bill was meant to go statewide. It would have given all counties the ability to put a 1% sales tax in. However, such a version proved very unpopular with lawmakers, especially during an election year, so that one died as well. 

Speaking with The Herald a couple weeks before the election, State Sen. Frank Ruff said he supported the bill if it was just involving Prince Edward. However Ruff said he, and others, are not for automatically extending those benefits to every county at the state level. Basically, he questions why give counties the authority to raise additional taxes when they haven’t even asked or shown a need. 

Now we have a new bill getting filed. Del. Tommy Wright confirmed to The Herald last month that he already had one ready to be heard by the Assembly. And yes, Wright’s bill is focused only on Prince Edward County. However, there has been another statewide sales tax bill filed as well. That’s where supervisors hope Commonwealth Strategy Group can step in and generate more support among lawmakers, getting the Prince Edward bill to the House floor before the statewide version is considered. 

Where will the money go? 

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. Financial advisors Davenport & Company estimated last year that a 1% increase in sales tax would generate between $3 million and $3.5 million. 

And it’s not like Prince Edward would be the first county to get this opportunity. 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.

As for where the money would go, Prince Edward County supervisors already know the price tag for the elementary renovations, which stand 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. 

What’s next for Prince Edward supervisors? 

So now the county has a lobbyist firm, Commonwealth Strategy Group, in place. They also have a bill, filed by Del. Tommy Wright, waiting to be presented during the new Assembly session in January. Until that session rolls around, now the only thing to do is hurry up and wait.