By Stefanie Jackson – Responding to the waning COVID-19 pandemic that leaves behind struggling economies in localities across Virginia and the U.S., inflation, minimum wage, and affordable housing were among the topics discussed by state and local elected officials at the Eggs and Issues breakfast held Dec. 8 by the Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce at the Eastern Shore Yacht & Country Club.
Del. Robert Bloxom noted there is little that the Virginia General Assembly or local governments can do to ease the impact of inflation aside from cutting taxes, a measure that is not without consequences.
Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin has proposed eliminating Virginia’s grocery tax, but Bloxom said that idea is problematic since about half or 1% of the 2.5% tax benefits localities, and that benefit would need to be recovered.
Lowering the gas tax would not be possible either, since that revenue is bonded for building and repairing roads, Bloxom added.
Ron Wolff and Dixon Leatherbury, chairmen of the Accomack County Board of Supervisors and Northampton County Board of Supervisors, respectively, said there was little that could be done at the county level other than maintaining real estate and property taxes at their current levels.
The panel of politicians discussed Virginia’s minimum wage (which is set to increase to $11 an hour Jan. 1, 2022, and $12 an hour Jan. 1, 2023) and if there is anything that can be done to mitigate its potential negative impacts on businesses.
Sen. Lynwood Lewis acknowledged that Virginia’s minimum wage is set to gradually increase to $15 an hour, but with “a couple stops along the way.”
The 2022 and 2023 increases already have been authorized, but minimum wage increases to $13.50 per hour on Jan. 1, 2025, and $15 per hour on Jan. 1, 2026, will not occur unless they are enacted by the General Assembly by July 1, 2024.
Leatherbury said affordable or workforce housing is the top priority of every incorporated town in Northampton County, which has tasked its planning commission with reviewing its zoning ordinance for any impediments to the development of affordable housing.
Wolff noted a townhouse development of 142 units has been proposed close to Captains Cove (near Greenbackville), which is in the “largest growth district” in Accomack County.
Lewis observed there is a “glaring disparity” between the Eastern Shore and nearby Maryland counties when it comes to teacher pay – a difference of $10,000 to $11,000 in starting salaries.
He will work this year to obtain permanent funding for Accomack and Northampton from the Cost of Competing Adjustment or COCA funds, which help localities fill in the wage gap for teachers.
This year, the counties received one-time COCA funding of $2 million, of which Northampton’s share was $362,000.
Wolff said the counties are depending on the COCA funding becoming permanent, otherwise they will be “left holding the bag” for the salary increases.
The panelists seemed to agree that competition in providing high-speed internet on the Shore is actually holding up progress in making it available throughout the region.
Internet providers such as the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority (ESVBA), Spectrum, and Neubeam won’t share information about the areas they serve, even on ESVBA’s $12.5 million grant application to the Virginia Telecommunication Initiative or VATI, Wolff said.
That leaves some parts of the Shore with multiple broadband providers, while others have none.
The speed at which technology becomes outdated also makes it difficult to obtain funding for internet infrastructure. For example, Neubeam offers download speeds of 25 megabits per second, but that “doesn’t cut it” anymore, as 100 megabits or more are needed, Leatherbury said.
Bloxom added that mobile internet is fast becoming a competitor in the realm of broadband and perhaps future investments should focus on cell towers.
Top Priorities for 2022
Bloxom emphasized the importance of infrastructure as a driver of economic development and noted that the Hampton Roads Sanitation District (HRSD) is investing $25 million to expand sewer service on the Shore.
The cost to developers to build low-income housing is reduced when infrastructure like water and sewer is already in place, he added.
Bloxom will pursue state funding to match HRSD’s investment and further support extension of sewer service to localities in need such as Wachapreague, Accomac, and Parksley.
Lewis agreed that “the HRSD project is huge.” Other topics of concern for Lewis in 2022 include rails to trails, COCA, and legislation that will support aquaculture as past “freedom to farm” bills have supported agriculture.
He is also interested in forming a state flood board to improve coastal resilience to sea-level rise due to climate change.
Leatherbury will continue to support the HRSD project and affordable housing, which are linked, as sewer infrastructure will be built where higher housing density belongs – in and around towns.
Northampton school capital improvement projects also will be featured in 2022. Occohannock Elementary School will have energy efficiency improvements and other work done next summer as was completed at Kiptopeke Elementary School this summer.
Additionally, preparations for a major renovation and construction project at Northampton’s middle and high school will continue in 2022.
Wolff’s top priority in 2022 is to support Rocket Lab, in Wallops Island, the company that gives “the biggest bang for the buck” in terms of driving the local and regional economy.
Rocket Lab’s launches are expected to double through 2030, from about eight to 15 launches annually to 20 or 25 launches annually – about two every month, he said.
Rocket tourism draws people who spend money in Shore hotels, restaurants, and shops, but they don’t require local services such as public education.
Wolff said the Shore should follow the example of Florida, which has been profiting from rocket tourism for many years.