Prince Edward Makes Progress: Sales tax bill advances in Senate

Published 2:04 am Thursday, January 25, 2024

The vote went in Prince Edward County’s favor on Tuesday. Speaking before the Virginia State Senate Finance Committee, Prince Edward school board member Cainan Townsend and County Administrator Doug Stanley presented the case, explaining why the county needs this sales tax bill to pass, as the 1% increase would help pay for elementary school renovations. 

“I have a lot of experience dealing with the school systems in Prince Edward County and they have been in a pretty tragic state for a good long time,” said Townsend, who noted he’s the father of one student already at Prince Edward County Elementary, with two more children set to follow. “We’ve known that we’ve needed new schools for a very long time. The problem has been finding ways to really pay for and finance that. Unfortunately we don’t have some of the resources that many other localities do have. I think (the sales tax increase) will give us some of those pathways and avenues to pay for the construction that we know that we have needed.”  

Both men explained this wasn’t something that could get pushed back or “examined” by a state study. They went over in detail how Prince Edward County Elementary has multiple roof leaks, problems where some classrooms are unusable due to mold and traffic problems due to the current design, just to name a few. The problem isn’t that Prince Edward officials don’t recognize the problem, both men told the committee. Everyone agrees the renovations are needed, at a current price tag of $43.3 million. The problem is figuring out how to pay that. 

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“It’s hard for a rural county in Southside Virginia to snap our fingers and come up with the debt service for $43 million,” Stanley said. “We’ve been grappling for years with how to address deficiencies in our school facilities. The voters of Prince Edward will ultimately decide if this is the correct path.” 

A majority of the committee members agreed, voting 11-3 to send the sales tax bill to the full State Senate. 

What is Prince Edward asking for? 

The request is to raise Prince Edward’s sales tax by 1%. In Virginia, a city or county has to first get permission from the General Assembly, then citizens have to vote on the concept before it can happen. Previous county administrator Wade Bartlett floated the idea in 2019. In 2021, 2022 and 2023, supervisors pushed to get a bill filed and approved in the Assembly, but each time it died.
It’s also very much not a new idea, as officials from the Virginia Association of Counties and Virginia Education Association pointed out. Both groups are in favor of the current bill, SB 146. Originally filed by State Sen. Frank Ruff, when he retired earlier this month, his successor Sen. Tammy Mulchi took up the cause. She presented the bill to the finance committee Tuesday, asking them to consider the issue at hand. 

“The school is in such dire need for something to happen there,” Mulchi pointed out. 

Eight counties and one city over the years have received approval by the state to raise sales taxes to pay for school repairs. That includes neighboring Charlotte County, Gloucester County, Halifax County, Henry County, Mecklenburg County, Northampton County, Patrick County, Pittsylvania County and the City of Danville. 

In previous years, the problem Prince Edward kept dealing with was a push by some Democrats to do a “one-size-fits-all” bill, giving all cities and counties across the state permission to raise their sales tax to pay for schools. The bill specific to Prince Edward in the past constantly got tabled, with the argument that the larger version would help the county anyway. Except the larger bills also never passed. 

In previous Assembly sessions, those bills were shot down, often dying in committee, as nobody could come to an agreement. The argument from some lawmakers was why give every county that power when they haven’t asked for or seemingly needed it. 

What happens to sales tax bill? 

This is one step, but there’s a lot of work still left to be done. Looking at the legislative calendar, it appears that Prince Edward’s bill, SB 146, will go to the full State Senate for a vote on Friday. If it gets approved by the Senate, then it crosses over and the process continues in the Virginia House of Delegates.

If the bill passes through all of that and the governor signs it into law, then it would go up on the ballot next November, where Prince Edward residents would decide if they want to approve the 1% sales tax bump. Meanwhile, the renovation work, expected to start in August, could take up to 30 months to complete. 

“I think we’re guardedly optimistic,” Stanley told The Herald after the hearing. “It means a lot to Prince Edward. I appreciate school board member Cainan Townsend going over there with me. There’s no turning back at this point. This is critical for our community.”