Gloucester voters approved tax hike to fund school construction, but now some say they feel ‘deceived’

Gloucester

GLOUCESTER, Va. (WAVY) — In November, nearly 62% of voters in Gloucester County approved raising local sales tax in order to pay for the construction and maintenance of county schools.

Now that it has come time for county leaders to decide exactly where each cent of the new revenue will go, some taxpayers say they’re left feeling “deceived.”

“Vote Yes for Gloucester” — a referendum committee that championed the effort last year to give county leaders the authority to increase sales tax by up to 1% — recently launched a new campaign titled “Respect our Vote.”

The group is calling on the Board of Supervisors to amend the county administrator’s proposed FY 2021-22 budget so that the estimated $5 million in new revenue goes solely towards school construction and maintenance projects that have yet to be undertaken.

As proposed, some of that money would be funneled to help pay off the $26 million in debt on school-related projects already completed, which according to financial advisors could help prevent other tax increases down the line.

“This isn’t what we wanted, this isn’t what we expected,” said Beth Gibson, a group member and parent of two. “We as parents and citizens were hoping for so much more for our kids … we feel deceived.”

One of the major projects the county would complete with help from the new tax would be a renovation to Gloucester High School.

While $42 million is included in the county’s capital improvement plan to get the work done, Gibson concerns the county’s plan will leave no additional funding to pay for future projects over the next 20 years for Gloucester schools.

Gibson isn’t the only one concerned, so is State Sen. Tommy Norment (R-James City County), as well as Del. Keith Hodges (R-Urbanna).

In a letter to the Board on March 18, the lawmakers stated that “diverting monies collected from this sales and use tax to debt mitigation for previous capital projects for schools is counter to the legislation and written intent” of the bill allowing for the tax increase. Their letter highlights the revenues are only to be used on “new” construction and major renovations to schools.

“The General Assembly may look unfavorably on similar requests from localities if these revenues are not used as intended,” the letter said.

Hodges has asked Attorney General Mark Herring (D-Va.) for an official opinion on the proposal.

On Tuesday night, neither County Administrator Brent Fedors or Chairman Robert Orth made themselves available to answer questions about the plan.

However they do have support for it in community members such as Pat Dunnington.

Dunnington called Fedors’ idea “brilliant.”

“I don’t understand why people are complaining. The five year improvement plan for schools is fully funded,” Dunnington said.

She said besides, raising more taxes is just not an option for so many at this point on account of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Pretty clear that it is going to be used for a certain set of school projects and then also potentially to pay debt incurred as a result of building,” Dunnington said. “To me not a good time to be increasing the cost of things for taxpayers.”

A budget workshop where people can weigh-in is scheduled Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Gloucester High School. The budget will be voted on by the full board April 19.

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