State senator warns Gloucester’s use of sales tax increase could have ‘chilling’ effect for other communities

Gloucester

GLOUCESTER, Va. (WAVY) — The Gloucester County Board of Supervisors voted to approve its fiscal year 2022 budget Monday night amid a controversy that appears far from over.

The 5-2 vote only further solidified the divide that has formed between some board members, the school board, state leaders and some of the community over the issue of how an estimated annual $5 million in new sales tax revenues should be spent.

The budget recommended by County Administrator Brent Fedors and approved by the board increases the county sales tax by 1% on July 1 and uses the majority of the new revenue to pay down the debt of school projects already completed.

Gloucester’s school superintendent, school board chair, and local education advocates contend it is not what 62% of voters in the county approved the tax hike for. They say the money is meant to help complete projects in the planning stages.

They have the backing of the state’s top Republican.

“It would be disappointing if they misinterpreted the legislation like that,” Sen. Tommy Norment (R-James City County) said in a text message ahead of the board’s vote.

In a letter sent to the board last month, Norment, as well as Del. Keith Hodges (R-Urbanna), highlighted that legislation specifies that revenues from the additional sales tax are only to be used on “new” construction and major renovations to schools.

He warns under the county’s plan, other communities may not be given similar opportunities to raise their sales tax in the future.

“It could have a ‘chilling’ effect on other localities getting a similar benefit,” Norment said. “Isle of Wight’s [county] bill [for tax increase to pay for school construction] died this year.”

However the letter did little to change the mind of board chair Bob “JJ” Orth, who blames the school board for getting the state lawmakers involved.

“This is a local issue that the school board should have come to us to talk about,” Orth said. “There was no opportunity to in any way shape or form, have any kind of compromise any kid of discussion. We were immediately thrown under the bus.”

However Robin Rice, chair of the Gloucester County School Board, said that is not how she remembers things playing out at all.

“I think that (Orth) is in a defensive mode,” Rice said.

Rice said she expressed her concerns with the plan to use the sales tax to pay down past debt on March 12 with Orth in a meeting.

Rice said the voters were led to believe that a new punch list of projects was going to be addressed with the roughly $100 million in new revenue estimated over 20 years.

Specifically Rice said the community was looking forward to a robust Gloucester High School renovation.

Not only would the money be enough to cover $42 million for a new roof and HVAC system for the county’s only high school, but also for interior classroom renovations.

“So our students are not learning in classrooms that are 1970s standards,” Rice said.

The School Board voted last week to send the Board of Supervisors a proposal that would bring the total request for Gloucester High School funding to more than $70 million.

To this Orth said the School Board was “asleep at the wheel” for not getting it to them sooner.

“We gotta stop this crap that is going on between the school board and the board of supervisors because we are not getting anywhere,” Orth said.

Orth pointed out that the county is providing for a 5% raise for all teachers and staff, while keeping the real estate tax rate flat for another two years.

“How many places can you say can you say can do that in this day in time when so many people are suffering from the COVID crisis?” Orth said.

However Rice is now awaiting an opinion from the Attorney General on if the Board of Supervisor’s actions was legal.

“I think it’s sending a very clear message that [the Board of Supervisors] are not listening to their constituents.”

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