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2018-01-31 / Featured / Front Page

Supervisors face resistance over proposed tax cut

BY JIM McCONNELL STAFF WRITER


Citizens protest the Board of Supervisors’ decision to advertise a lower property tax rate by holding up cutouts in the shape of a penny, the amount of the proposed tax cut, at last week’s meeting. 
JAMES HASKINS Citizens protest the Board of Supervisors’ decision to advertise a lower property tax rate by holding up cutouts in the shape of a penny, the amount of the proposed tax cut, at last week’s meeting. JAMES HASKINS Some held up paper replica pennies. Others carried homemade signs and shouted, imploring county supervisors not to lower their taxes.

“Not one penny less! Not one penny less! Not one penny less!”

Standing in pitch darkness along West Salisbury Road last Tuesday night, a group of about 30 county residents gathered outside a church where Midlothian District Supervisor Leslie Haley was meeting with constituents (find that story here), and protested the Board of Supervisors’ pending decision to cut Chesterfield’s real estate tax rate by one cent this year.

Some displayed signs suggesting Haley and her fellow supervisors would be voted out of office in 2019 if they followed through with the tax rate reduction on Wednesday.


Citizens displayed signs protesting the Board of Supervisors’ vote to advertise a property tax rate, 95 cents per $100 of assessed value, that’s a penny less than the current tax rate. 
JAMES HASKINS Citizens displayed signs protesting the Board of Supervisors’ vote to advertise a property tax rate, 95 cents per $100 of assessed value, that’s a penny less than the current tax rate. JAMES HASKINS At least one sign questioned how the board could take such significant action before allowing citizens to comment at a public hearing. “What do we want? Transparency!” they chanted. “Who do we want it from? The Board of Supervisors! When do we want it? Now!”

Less than five years after a group of pitchfork wielding Chesterfield citizens gathered outside a board meeting to demonstrate against a proposed meals tax referendum, last week’s protest reflected the county’s shifting political dynamic.

In a locality long known for conservative fiscal policy, the Republican-controlled Board of Supervisors is now under pressure from some citizens not for raising the real estate tax rate – but for cutting it.

During a public comment period at Wednesday night’s supervisors meeting – following the board’s unanimous vote to lower the advertised tax rate by a penny, from 96 cents to 95 cents per $100 of assessed value – Midlothian resident Kate Flinn reminded the five supervisors that Gov. Ralph Northam carried Chesterfield in last November’s gubernatorial election. He’s the first Democrat to win the reliably red county since 1961.

“I want you to be thinking about that, because we’re angry at you – especially what you did tonight,” Flinn said, drawing loud applause from the audience.

In the days leading up to last week’s meeting, Flinn and other Democrats bombarded board members with email messages urging them to advertise the real estate tax rate at 97 cents – arguing that would give them the flexibility to either raise or lower the current 96-cent rate after evaluating citizen feedback from public hearings.

As required under state law, the county annually advertises its maximum tax rates for real estate and other categories.

Unless the Board of Supervisors decides to re-advertise the real estate tax rate, which is highly unlikely, it cannot set the rate above 95 cents when it adopts the fiscal year 2019 budget in April.

Each 1-cent change in the tax rate amounts to about $3.5 million in annual revenue for the county government, which relies disproportionately on residential real estate taxes to fund its operations.

“I have problems with the tax cut, but especially the way they’re doing it,” said Midlothian resident Kristen Calleja. “They’re purposely tying their own hands so when people come later and talk about the budget, they can say they have no choice but to cut the rate.”

Matoaca District Supervisor Steve Elswick noted that when the board raised the real estate tax rate from 95 to 96 cents in 2014, it committed to give that penny back once countywide real estate assessments had returned to pre-recession levels.

According to Matt Harris, the county’s budget director, Chesterfield has reached that threshold following five consecutive years of appreciation in average residential real estate valuations.

Even with a 1-cent rate cut, Harris predicted rising assessments will fuel a $15 million increase in local real estate tax collections this year. That means the county government and school system will still be able to fund all initiatives planned for fiscal year 2019, he said.

The school budget proposed earlier this month by Superintendent James Lane includes $25 million in new funding.

“I’m proud that this year’s budget allows us the opportunity to return that 1 cent to the citizens. It’s long overdue,” Elswick said.

Chris Winslow, supervisor of the Clover Hill District, acknowledged the action is “mostly symbolic” because most Chesterfield homeowners won’t see a dramatic difference in their real estate tax bills.

For the owner of a $200,000 house, a 1-cent reduction in the rate will decrease their real estate tax liability by about $25 annually. That’s not likely to mollify conservatives who argue the board has been effectively raising their taxes for the past four years.

But Winslow thinks it’s important to offset the impact of rising assessments on even some of the county’s older subdivisions, which have made the county’s stock of affordable housing “less affordable” than it was last year.

“I look at the totality of the circumstances,” he said. “To me, property tax relief in this case is reasonable. It’s appropriate. It’s responsible. It looks out for all of our citizens.” Along with neighboring Powhatan, Chesterfield’s current real estate tax rate is the highest of any county in central Virginia.

Henrico (87 cents per $100 of assessed value) is next on the list, followed by Prince George ($.86), Caroline ($.83), Hanover ($.81), Dinwiddie ($.79), Goochland ($.53) and Amelia ($.51).

Among cities, Petersburg has the highest rate ($1.35), followed by Richmond ($1.20), Colonial Heights ($1.20) and Hopewell ($1.13).

“If you look at all of these localities, it would be very difficult to find a correlation between the tax rate and the quality of education and the quality of the services,” said Dorothy Jaeckle, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors.

“If you look around at areas that are financially stressed, I think it’s because they do not control spending. They are the ones that end up in financial trouble. I think this board believes that just because assessments rise and tax revenue increases, it’s not a reason to increase the budget.”

Elswick insisted Chesterfield doesn’t have a revenue problem.

“After conversations with my colleagues, and believe me, we take this very serious, if we were to leave the tax rate at 96 cents, we would not appropriate any additional money for spending,” he said. “Just because we have money doesn’t mean we have to spend it.”

Jim Holland, the board’s lone Democrat, admitted he was prepared to vote against cutting the real estate tax rate a few weeks ago. Then he “sat down and really began to look at where we are financially.”

After receiving Harris’ assurance that the county will still be able to fund priorities in education, public safety and transportation, Holland changed his mind.

“I don’t have a problem making a tough decision, because if I stop doing that, I should be off this board,” he said. “My commitment as a supervisor has been to make sure we spend every dollar wisely and efficiently. When we do that, we serve everyone well.”

Contacted via email last Friday, Flinn expressed disappointment that Holland decided to vote in favor of cutting the tax rate.

“The board members don’t listen and don’t seem to care what their constituents want,” she wrote. “Advertising the rate at 95 cents while not providing a list of items they’d be willing to do without in order to fund our schools sends a clear message to us that, once again, they don’t care about our priorities.” ¦

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