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Public quiet on tax, budget

No one spoke on the proposed $87.9 million 2014-15 county budget that includes the school budget during a public hearing Monday night in Halifax.

And only one person spoke during a public hearing on the 2014 reassessment that will require a 1-cent hike in the real estate tax rate to remain revenue neutral due to a drop in the assessed value of county real estate.

Halifax County Board of Supervisors held the pair of public hearings at the Mary Bethune Office Complex in Halifax.

The assessment decrease is resulting in a proposed penny increase in the real estate tax rate from 45 cents to 46 cents because the total assessed value of real property is less than last year’s total assessed value of real property by 1.51 percent.

The tax rate that would levy the same amount of real estate tax as last year, when multiplied by the new total assessed value of real estate would be 46 cents per $100 of assessed value.

A 1-cent increase in the real estate tax rate will generate an additional $362,600 in income for the county.

Douglas Powell, chairman of the board of equalization, told supervisors he along with other equalization board members Clifford Somerfield and Dewey Compton heard 16 assessment appeals including seven residential, one commercial and eight agricultural.

All of the changes made were minor with 15 assessment values being reduced, none increased, and one unchanged.

When Chairman Tom West opened the public hearing for comments on the recent reassessment, Josephine Scearce of Halifax was the lone citizen speaking.

The self-described “concerned citizen of Halifax County and a big taxpayer” asked supervisors “When are we going to get jobs here?

“Everyone has to drive out of town” to work, she continued, telling how her grandson drives 79 miles one-way to Henderson, N.C. everyday.

“We are paying big salaries to help bring jobs to our area, but we can not see any coming in to help the poor people,” Scearce said. “But still, you are raising taxes.”

She reminded supervisors the tobacco payout money is a thing of the past asking board members, “What are you all going to do now?”

Living on a fixed income now, Scearce shared with supervisors her personal situation.

“I just lost my husband on Feb. 22, 2014, and I got cut on down real bad,” she said, adding many families are living on fixed incomes on one salary.

“What are we going to do? Food, gas, bills going up everyday, taxes on everything. We have to cut back. I think you all need to cut back,” she concluded.

At the conclusion of the reassessment hearing, supervisors held a brief budget work session listening to budget requests and presentations from area agencies, commissions and departments seeking county funding in the upcoming year.

 

Halifax County/South Boston Library 

Halifax County/South Boston Library Director Jay Stephens said he had presented two budget possibilities, one for $220,000 that would return the library funding to what it received from the county in 2011 and several  years before that, and one for $192,000, which represents level funding with the current year.

In the last year, the library has circulated more than 116,000 items, had more than 113,000 visitors to the two libraries, had over 3,600 people attend library programs and had 32,430 sessions of Internet usage on the library’s computers.

He explained the staff is “working hard to grow these numbers and increase usage” and have been “very busy.”

“I know times are tight, and y’all have a lot of decisions before you to make about budget, and I certainly understand that. I hope you will see fit to fund the library at one of the levels requested, and in so doing enable us to continue to grow and improve our resources we offer to the community,” he concluded.

 

Southern Virginia Higher Education Center

Patty Nelson, chief financial officer at the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, thanked supervisors for their support and sought level funding of the current year for next year’s budget.

Nelson referred to the higher education center’s “real goal of retooling the workforce” so that a workforce will be available when the jobs do come to the area.

Working collaboratively with the Halifax County Industrial Development Authority, the higher education center is trying to meet those goals by having 233 degrees awarded in the past year by the school’s various partners.

The higher education center also has increased its work with industry to help train incumbent workers, and Presto Products is one example where between 1,000 and 1,500 hours of training have been provided to strengthen Presto’s employees which has made the company stronger.

A future focus will be on industry skills including welding, precision machining and industrial maintenance that will provide career paths and a workforce that will help county residents find jobs in areas where there currently are gaps in this region.

 

Halifax County Public Schools

Dr. Merle Herndon, superintendent of Halifax County Public Schools, sought level funding of $13 million from supervisors but explained the school board is having to cut $2.3 million from their proposed budget for 2015.

Last year, she said they cut $2.2 million from what they wanted for a total of $4.5 million over the past two years.

School board members are struggling with Virginia Retirement System mandated increases of over $800,000 and spiraling health insurance costs that may have to be partially passed on to the employees, Herndon said.

Another struggle is providing compensation for teachers without a step/scale system in place.

Currently teachers with no experience up to seven years of experience are paid the same salary.

She explained career technical classes will be a focus in the coming year in an effort to get students in the pipeline to be certified in areas such as precision machining, industrial manufacturing and welding.

And lastly, Herndon said “just keeping up with instructional materials, equipment, pupil/teacher ratio and basic educational needs is a struggle with a limited budget.”

She urged supervisors to consider providing “any additional funding” to help offset the $2 million deficit in the proposed 2014-15 budget that includes state mandates.

ED-5 school board member Dr. Roger Long questioned why the county “has not accepted responsibility” for the 6.3 percent shortfall in state funding.

“The state has neglected its fiscal responsibilities for education, local government must cover their shortfall,” he told supervisors, adding, local funding should be over $16.5 million.

“Most of those cuts have hurt opportunities for our children and shortchanged our employees who number 130 less now than five years ago. Efficiency comes at a price,” Long said.

He chided supervisors and school board members for not doing their best.

“Can we, as two boards, assure Halifax County parents and children that we are doing the best we can to provide the best education for them? No. A resounding no,” he said.

“This is a big county. We need to think bigger,” he told supervisors asking them to re-examine their responsibility to increase funds for county public schools.

 

Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney

Halifax County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tracy Q. Martin sought “a small increase” above level funding for the upcoming budget year for that office.

Martin requested an additional $11,000 to $13,000 to cover increased health care and other benefits that would allow her to turn a part-time into a full-time position, and she promised when she is able she would have these local funds absorbed by the state compensation board to offset the county supplement.

“It is vitally important for the administration of justice in my office,” Martin said of the needed full-time circuit court secretary position.

The compensation board will fully fund the salary, FICA benefits and life insurance and retirement but will not fund the healthcare insurance premiums.

If the county provides the healthcare insurance funds for the full-time circuit court secretary position, Martin said the part-time office manager position would be eliminated, and current staff would absorb those duties.

 

Southside Community Services Board

Southside Community Services Board Director Don Burge provided background in support of its funding request for the coming budget year.

Joining Burge were partners Captain David Martin of the Halifax County Sheriff’s Office who explained the community value of the crisis intervention teams provided by Southside Community Services Board.

These teams provide 24/7 emergency services to persons who are in an acute crisis or behavioral health emergency.

Across Southside Virginia, 837 individuals received emergency services last year that is 40 percent higher than the average use across the state, Martin explained.

“This result clearly indicates a need for a more effective crisis approach,” he said, noting it is crucial that Southside expand its emergency response system to include a crisis intervention team to better serve the community by increasing safety of first responders and general public, redirecting individuals with mental illness from the judicial system to the health care system and minimizing the likelihood of tragic outcomes during mental health crisis.

The mission of the Southside Crisis Intervention Team is to safely intercept people in crisis who are at risk of criminal justice system involvement due to their mental health needs.

“Our primary goal is to promote first responder interventions that minimize trauma during a crisis while maintaining the safety of everyone involved,” Martin said.

Also joining Burge was Lt. Dennis Barker of the South Boston Police Department who explained the mental health first aid program currently in operation in the region.

According to Barker, the Southside Community Services Board trains police officers and members of the public to improve mental health literacy by helping them identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness in the community.

The eight-hour training certification course teaches participants a five-step action plan to assess a situation, select and implement interventions and secure appropriate care for the individual and also introduces participants to risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems.

The need for mental health training was brought to life following the mass shootings by mentally troubled gunmen at Virginia Tech in 2007, Aurora, Colorado in 2012, Newtown, Conn. in 2012 and Columbine, Colo., in 1999.

Burge concluded the presentation telling supervisors “the real benefit” will come from having people be able to recognize a problem before it happens and “know what to do to avoid tragedies and keep communities as safe as we can.”

 

Southside Center for Violence Prevention

Melissa Wood of Southside Center for Violence Prevention, which includes Madeline’s House, sought $7,500 in level funding from supervisors explaining 23 county residents were served for 208 bed nights last year.

According to Wood, the center hopes to establish a satellite office in Halifax County by the end of 2014.

 

South Boston-Halifax County Museum of Fine Arts and History

Museum Board of Directors President Paul Smith thanked supervisors for providing $7,000 which represents 6.6 percent of the museum’s budget each year.

He explained all age groups benefit from the exhibits and special programs offered at the museum.

The museum also offers a variety of services including a research center, programs and classrooms at no charge to the public.

 

Halifax County Industrial Development Authority

Although Halifax County Industrial Development Authority Executive Director Matt Leonard was unable to attend Monday night’s meeting, he sent a letter to County Administrator Jim Halasz outlining the IDA’s request for $421,000, $60,000 less than the current year and nearly $150,000 less than 2009.

If allocated, Leonard said the $421,000 would make up nearly 18 percent of the authority’s annual operating budget, “making the county a critical IDA mission partner.”

In the letter, Leonard said the mission of the IDA is “to improve Halifax County through increased employment and economic growth.”

However, with less funding the staff has been restructured, and the organization and its operations have been realigned including reducing staff costs by nearly 25 percent from its peak.

The authority has asked the county to match 10 percent of a $1.14 million grant to be used for Phase III of the Southern Virginia Advanced Manufacturing Center, formerly Daystrom Furniture, on Greens Folly Road.

However, that match is not included in the proposed county budget in 2015.

Phase III of this project would extend natural gas onto the site through an easement under the railroad making gas available to the south and east side of the tracks for the first time.

“We need the county to stand ready with matching funds so we can continue the progress we have made,” Leonard said in the letter.

If the county includes this $114,000 match in the proposed budget, “it would allocate to the IDA $36,000 less” than in the current year, he said.

“What is most important, however, is the signal these contributions send that Halifax County is not tapping the brakes on its industrial development efforts,” Leonard concluded in his letter.

Following the presentations, supervisors took the following actions:

w Appointed ED-6 Supervisor Larry Giordano to replace former ED-3 Supervisor W. I. Fitzgerald on the Southside Planning District Commission; and

w Approved a letter of support for the Tri County Community Action Agency’s weatherization program.

According to the letter, “Tri-County Community Action Agency has provided a valuable service to the low-income residents of Halifax County for over 35 years through the Weatherization Assistance Program. 

“The Board of Supervisors of Halifax County strongly supports the continuation of this work for as long as funding is available. The energy conservation measures performed by this agency helps the county achieve both economic and social outcomes by lowering the utility costs of those of modest means.

“On behalf of the Board of Supervisors of Halifax County, we submit this letter of support for the Weatherization Program of the Tri-County Community Action Agency, Inc. for fiscal year 2014-2015.  

“As localities such as ours face the financial challenges of providing services to its constituents, it is a benefit to have this agency supporting the community with energy conservation measures.”