By Stefanie Jackson – The Eastern Shore’s local and state government representatives reflected on how the region fared throughout the COVID-19 pandemic this last year and looked forward to the future at the Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce’s semiannual Eggs and Issues breakfast and political forum May 13 in Wachapreague.
Dixon Leatherbury, chairman of the Northampton board of supervisors, said the county financially performed better than expected, with both sales tax and transient occupancy tax or TOT revenues climbing 35% or more in the last year.
County officials attributed the gains to more people staying home and shopping online instead of traveling across the Chesapeake Bay or to Salisbury, Md., since sales taxes collected on online purchases benefit the localities where the items are delivered.
Leatherbury commended Sheriff David Doughty and the Rev. Kelvin Jones for the life skills program they launched at the Eastern Shore Regional Jail, which helps eligible inmates prepare to be successful citizens after they have completed their sentences.
Northampton County’s updated comprehensive plan is nearing completion, he added.
Plans are in the works to correct building “deficiencies” at both Occohannock and Kiptopeke elementary schools; the work will be done over the summers of 2021 and 2022 to avoid disrupting instruction, Leatherbury said.
The county also plans to convert the former Northampton Middle School building in Machipongo into a community center and emergency shelter and recently received a $345,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management to purchase a generator for the facility.
Leatherbury observed that Northampton has made progress in gaining broadband internet access but it is still lacking “down the necks.”
Ron Wolff, chairman of the Accomack board of supervisors, said his county also experienced sales and other tax revenue increases during the COVID-19 pandemic, during which no county employees were laid off.
He noted that Accomack has not raised any local taxes or fees since 2016.
Wolff announced that Accomack recently rolled out a new program that will require users of county boat ramps to have parking permits for the vehicles or trailers that transport their boats.
The cost is $7 a day or $40 a week but is free to anyone who pays both real estate and personal property taxes in Accomack. Parking decals will be mailed with property tax bills, he said.
Wolff commended the volunteer service Shore Delivery Corps for delivering food, medicine, and supplies to both Accomack and Northampton citizens who couldn’t leave home due to the pandemic.
He looks forward to the Hampton Roads Sanitation District’s expansion of sewer service to the Shore, beginning with the construction of a force main from Nassawadox to Onancock. Phase I of the project is out for bid, and the contract will be awarded in June, Wolff said.
He also anticipates more rocket activity and related tourism in Accomack County.
Rocket Lab, a company that built its first launch complex in New Zealand, built its second launch complex in Wallops Island and plans to launch rockets on a monthly basis.
The company also plans to launch neutron rockets three or four times a year, Wolff added.
Like the famed SpaceX, Rocket Lab uses barges in recovering rockets and has future plans for human launches.
Wolff said “that would put the Eastern Shore … on the map,” placing it on “equal footing in the aeronautical community of the world.”
State Sen. Lynwood Lewis, a Democrat, and Del. Robert Bloxom, a Republican, offered some agreeing and differing perspectives on the outcomes of the Virginia General Assembly’s 2021 regular session and 85-day special session.
Lewis said “revenues exceeded expectations,” and Bloxom agreed.
Virginia is expected to receive more than $7 billion in federal funding from the American Rescue Plan, about half of which will go directly to localities, Lewis said.
He would like to see that money spent on school and broadband infrastructure.
Both the state senator and delegate approved of the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority’s new eligibility to receive Virginia Telecommunication Initiative or VATI grant funds to further expand high-speed internet access on the Shore.
Both also approved of Accomack and Northampton receiving a combined total of $2 million in one-time funding for competitive teacher salaries and were optimistic that it could become a permanent Cost of Competing Adjustment or COCA.
Lewis noted that marijuana possession has been legalized in Virginia starting July 1.
However, in Bloxom’s summation of the “good, bad, and the ugly” of the General Assembly sessions, he called the plentiful funding opportunities “good” and legalizing the possession of marijuana three years before legalizing its sale “bad policy.”
He noted that the commercial sale of marijuana won’t be legal until 2024, meaning those who are currently selling marijuana illegally get a “head start.”
Bloxom called voting to investigate the Office of the State Inspector General for citing the Virginia Parole Board for not following state code “ugly.”
He equally disapproved of the placing the names of Virginia voters who have voted absentee on a “permanent absentee ballot list.” Those voters will continue to receive absentee ballots for Virginia elections until the voters “opt out,” he said.
Lewis mentioned other accomplishments of the General Assembly this year such as eliminating the death penalty; passing Gov. Ralph Northam’s G3 or Get Skilled, Get a Job, Give Back program; and directing the Joint Legislative Audit & Review Committee or JLARC to conduct a study on the true cost of education in Virginia.
He also noted that Virginia will undergo redistricting this year, following the completion of the U.S. Census as usual, and he pledged that the process would be fairer than it has been in the past.