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Speakers plead to Halifax supervisors for funds, no tax hike

A total of 18 speakers sought more funding and decried raising taxes Monday evening during a public hearing on the $87,658,359 2012-13 county budget draft that proposes an increase in real estate taxes to 47 cents.

The current tax rate is 43 cents per $100 value.

Some 15 of those speaking pleaded their cases for funding for their respective agencies and departments, while three citizens told supervisors county citizens could stand no more hikes in the real estate tax rate.

Prior to the hearing, County Administrator George Nester described the proposed budget as a “very lean maintenance budget” that primarily attempts to maintain the level of services currently provided.

“It’s not been an easy budget to put together. It’s been very difficult, and I’m sure from the indication of the public that’s here tonight, many think that we’re asking too much, and many here are expecting they need more. It’s a tough decision for the board of supervisors,” he added.

Of the 18 speakers, six focused on the reinstatement of the Virginia Cooperative Extension ANR agent in the county.

Last year, supervisors combined that position with the county agriculture development director’s position and did not fill the ag extension vacancy.

However, Monday evening a half dozen county citizens pleaded with the board to fill the position by finding $15,330 to pay one-third of the agent’s $36,000 salary and fringe benefits package for a position the county has funded since 1916.

The state will pick up the remaining two-thirds of the extension agent’s salary, according to county resident and VCE Central District Director Dan Goerlich.

“An extension agent is somebody who clients can call if they have an immediate need like an insect or disease infestation taking hold in a crop, an immediate pesticide spray recommendation when mixing the formula or what variety of tobacco to plant for maximum yield,” he said.

Goerlich pointed out while the position has been vacant, a Pittsylvania County tobacco agent has fielded approximately 200 calls from county producers since last May, most focused on tobacco and wheat production.

Agents in Campbell, Mecklenburg and Charlotte counties also have provided coverage to the county.

“I would ask the board to consider how I can require these agents, already stretched very thin, to continue serving Halifax County producers if the county does not contribute to an ANR agent position,” the district director said.

Former agriculture extension agent Larry McPeters, who worked as an extension agent here for 32 years, also urged supervisors to reinstate the position the county has funded for the past 96 years.

“Rule number one” in economic development is to take care of existing industries, and the extension agent can help do that,” McPeters said, adding, “Agriculture is important.”

He further cited the extension agent position’s benefits to 980 county farmers and existing community agribusinesses including:

w Sunshine Mills which purchases $90 million each year in grain and has 190 employees;

w J. M. Huber in Crystal Hill which uses 80 percent of its wood from private farms;

w Halifax Livestock cattle marketing station in Scottsburg that made $12,629,000 in 2011, according to taxes, and owner Cecil Hatcher spent $42,000 on hay purchases, $49,000 on grain purchases, had $76,000 in veterinary expenses and spent $12,000 for fuel;

w Abbott Farm Supply in Halifax that works five full-time and five part-time employees and sold $2 million in farm products last year;

w Camp Chemical Corporation that has 30 full-time employees and spent $20 million purchasing grain and fertilizer;

w Crop Production Services in Crystal Hill;

w Spaulding Equipment Company, just across the county line in Charlotte County, that services many county farmers and has 20 full-time employees and five part-time and had $10 million in sales; and

w Tractor Supply in Centerville.

“These people are upset because you may not be hiring an ANR agent because when they lose agriculture here, it’s going to hurt their businesses,” McPeters said. “A good extension agent can help keep these people in business.”

Also speaking in support of the county resinstating the ANR extension agent position were county farmers David Hudson, Mike McDowell, Steve Hudson and Allen Keck.

Others seeking additional funding for their departments included Dr. Betty Adams, executive director of the Southern Virginia Higher Education Center, who told supervisors a special budget amendment is before the Senate that could provide an additional $125,000 in state money “at best” to the center.

“We’re a good investment and a driver for economic development in the county,” she told supervisors, noting the higher education center is currently courting Rolls Royce with a representative making the fourth visit to the campus last Friday.

“We’re looking forward to developing that relationship,” she said, urging supervisors “to be creative” in their funding “if you have to.”

County Library Director Joe Zappacosta, who has asked for $180,000 in county funding this year, pointed out the library took a 30 percent cut in the 2011 budget, but fortunately the system had a surplus that allowed the libraries to continue operations without making cuts.

This year there is no surplus, and if the library receives the same funding as last year, programs will have to be cut, he told supervisors.

Department of Social Services Director Kathy Andrews asked for continued support noting 3,471 households in the county received food stamp assistance last month, and over 18 percent of county residents received energy assistance benefits this year.

Peter Hunt and Dr. Al Roberts, provost at the Southside Virginia Community College’s Daniel campus, urged supervisors to fund $10,079 or $10.02 per student for the 1,051 county students taking classes at the college.

Others seeking continued support from supervisors were Larry Harris of the Longwood Small Business Development Center, YMCA Executive Director Marcus Hargrave and Paul Smith of the South Boston-Halifax County Museum.

Asking supervisors not to raise real estate taxes were Thomas Hundley who owns a 473-acre farm in the Clays Mill community, Josephine Scearce of Halifax and Bernard Mitzler of Nathalie.

Hundley told supervisors since 1998 his farm taxes have increased from $692 to $2,020, and this year alone his farmland reassessment went up $19,000 on three tracts – a 174-acre and a pair of 100-acre tracts.

“The tobacco buyout money is finished. What’s going to happen in 2014? We’re asking you not increase it (real estate tax rate) because we can’t keep paying it,” Hundley said.

Scearce, who addressed the board at a public hearing last Thursday night, returned Monday reiterating her message, “Please give seniors a break on their taxes.”

She told how she and her husband have worked all their lives as farmers and textile workers “to get what we have.”

Now they find themselves living on a fixed income, and “we can’t afford a tax increase,” she added.

Mitzler, a frequent speaker during the public comment portion of supervisors’ meetings, said, “You know me. We have had to cut back on the farm, and now everybody needs to share” in the cuts.

He told supervisors that reassessments on residential property went down but went up on farmland, and now it is time for supervisors “to start making some good decisions for the county.”

The final speaker of the evening was North Halifax Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ronnie Waller who pleaded the need for additional funding to assist volunteer firefighters all across the county.

“We need some help. The communities support us well, but we need some extra help to survive,” he told supervisors.

Pointing to the hundreds of volunteer firefighters and EMS crew members who give freely of their time and efforts in their communities, Waller said, “You get more bang for your buck out of these volunteers than you do any other concern of any type.

“I know you have budget constraints, but fire departments in the county are all bleeding,” he concluded.

Supervisors are scheduled to meet again next Thursday evening at 6 p.m. to officially set the real estate tax rate.