Surry’s proposed 6-cent tax increase draws opposition

Published 5:18 pm Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Four of the five people who spoke during Surry County’s May 13 public hearing on its draft 2021-2022 budget said they opposed the proposed 6-cent real estate tax increase.

“Did you ever consider that your tax-paying citizens were affected by the pandemic too?” asked Mike Eggleston.

“I understand the need to raise taxes … I understand the school system’s raise is mandated by the state so we cannot do anything about that, but have you ever considered that this county could cut expenses in other ways?” his wife, Helen, added. “The tax-paying citizens of this county were also hit by COVID and the restrictions that were placed on us. There were people who lost their jobs … and we’ve had to cut corners. We expect our Board of Supervisors to cut corners too.”

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Dianne Cheek said she owns two acres of land, the tax valuation for which increased by 33% in 2016 during the last reassessment despite the only structure on it being a dilapidated barn. The county is scheduled for a new reassessment this coming fiscal year.

“That’s a double whammy for a majority of your community,” Cheek said. “If the taxes are raised to 77 cents and we go through a reassessment that raises the value of my property another 33% that will raise my taxes up to 44%, and, you know, I just don’t think I can afford to do this every five years.”

“It is my understanding that we’re supposed to profit from these solar projects that have been approved in our county and there’s another one that’s coming along that is looking for approval in the near future in Cabin Point,” said Susan Corvello. “If we’re supposed to be gaining so much money from them. If they are to bring in so much more than just the normal citizen taxes then why are we having to increase both the real estate, and more likely, up the assessment of our land basically all in one fiscal year?”

Another speaker, Savannah Williams of the Claremont District, spoke on the Williamsburg Area Transit Authority’s announcement from March that it would be discontinuing its Route 13 bus route through Surry.

“I have students who come and help me on my farm, they come from the College of William and Mary … so I would like to know more about how that decision was made,” she said.

A number of factors are driving the proposed tax increase. On the revenue side, the county is anticipating a $710,000 drop in the public service corporation taxes from Dominion Energy’s Surry nuclear power plant, and a $105,000 decline in investment income due to the COVID-19 pandemic driving interest rates to historic lows. On the expenditure side, the state’s 2020-2022 biennial budget is mandating a 5% raise for teachers, and the county plans to give a 5% raise to its employees as well. There’s also a $182,000 increase in debt service to cover the money the county borrowed last year to upgrade its public safety radio system, increased costs for the state’s Children’s Services Act and increased contractual costs for jail and juvenile detention.

According to County Administrator Melissa Rollins, the drop in revenue from the Surry nuclear plant is the result of its sales assessment ratio falling below 100%.

The coming fiscal year’s proposed general fund budget totals roughly $28.2 million. Upwards of 50% of the county’s revenue comes from public service corporation taxes, mostly from Dominion’s Surry nuclear power plant. That revenue source is projected to drop by $710,000 in the coming fiscal year, creating a gap in the county’s finances equivalent to two and a half cents of real estate tax.

“The county has not raised taxes in 11 years … I hear citizens saying, ‘well, not so much,’ well, what are you going to cut?” asked Board of Supervisors Chairman Robert Elliott. “You have mandates from the state, you have emergency equipment and who wants to work a job over five years and don’t get an increase? … Your county employees, they have constantly been in line with our school system as far as raises are concerned over the last 20 years.”

To offset the impact of the tax increase on the county’s elderly and those with disabilities, Elliott had suggested the board increase the maximum tax exemption for these groups from the current $750 to $1,000. The board took action to adopt the change that evening.

“Your board members are also citizens and we also pay taxes so when we levy a tax it’s not only on you, but it is also on us,” said Bacon’s Castle District Supervisor Judy Lyttle. “Personally I’ve looked at what we have and what we need to do and I’ve come to the conclusion that we do need this tax increase.”

“I don’t want to raise taxes on fixed income citizens in the county; when I was elected I went and knocked on doors and I know who they are,” said Vice Chairman Michael Drewry.

He then added he would have preferred to see an exemption for anyone age 65 and older.

“What we did tonight was great, but it doesn’t achieve what I wanted to see achieved,” he said.

Surry District Supervisor Tim Calhoun, who had asked about additional cuts to the school system’s budget last month, isn’t convinced more cuts can’t be made at the county level.

“Why do we as a county need the number of people providing the services with a declining population?” he asked. “The new positions that were brought up today, I think there’s eight of them to the tune of about $581,000, I don’t believe we’ve had those in the past. Could we hold back on those until after the assessments later this year?”

He then called upon county and school system staff to “turn that pencil around and do some erasing.”

But Carsley District Supervisor Ronald Howell Jr., who was appointed April 8 to fill the late Kenneth Holmes’ seat, said based on Surry County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Serbrenia Sims’ presentation to the board last month, “She’s already at her minimum of staff positions … one math teacher for the fifth grade, one math teacher for the sixth grade, one math teacher for the seventh grade, one math teacher for the eighth grade.”

The board is scheduled to vote on its budget May 20.