By Stefanie Jackson – The Eastern Shore of Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which has recently merged with the Northampton County Chamber of Commerce, hosted the spring Eggs & Issues breakfast and political forum at the Club Car Cafe in Parksley April 7, emphasizing current issues including taxes, affordable and workforce housing, and infrastructure.
Billy Joe Tarr, chair of the Accomack County board of supervisors, announced that Congresswoman Elaine Luria helped get an $8.2 million Federal Community Projects grant for the Shore’s 911 communications project.
Tarr commended Luria and her staff for their assistance in obtaining the funding that will replace the entire public safety radio communications system that serves both Accomack and Northampton counties, eliminating “dead spots” in the communication system used by first responders and law enforcement.
Betsy Mapp, chair of Northampton’s board of supervisors, said the county is working with the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority (ESVBA) on the $12.3 million Virginia Telecommunication Initiative (VATI) grant the broadband authority received to build out its fiber-optic cable network to more than 11,000 locations in Accomack and Northampton counties.
(Northampton supervisors unanimously approved the VATI grant funding Tuesday night.)
Tarr noted that the entire project, including all funding sources, is $15 million.
When the project is complete, 72% of Accomack will have broadband coverage, and plans are in the works to cover the remaining 28%.
Mapp indicated it could take one-and-a-half to two years before the buildout is complete, and part of the reason getting high-speed internet to the whole Shore has been difficult is that competing broadband providers do not want to share information about the areas they serve.
She was asked if Northampton County would do a housing growth assessment to determine which areas would be the most viable for broadband expansion, but she believed that was a task more suited to ESVBA.
Mapp viewed the solution to the Shore’s broadband problem as multifaceted and recommended that areas far out on the Shore consider wireless high-speed internet service.
Other challenges facing Northampton include the high cost of renovation and new construction at the county’s middle and high school, which has now topped $61 million, and affordable housing for teachers and other low- or moderate-income workers.
Mapp noted both counties must address the issue of traffic safety. “Too many of our residents and visitors are being injured or killed. There are many causes: speeding, inattentive driving – such as talking on your phone, driving under the influence, dangerous intersections, et cetera, and we need to start addressing them as best we can.
“It’s almost routine, anymore, that the police catch people driving in excess of 100 miles an hour, so, that’s crazy, and we want to do something to slow people down,” she said.
Northampton is “holding the line” and doing everything it can not to raise real estate and personal property taxes, Mapp said.
Accomack County’s real estate reassessments have been completed, and many citizens have noticed that the assessed values of their properties have risen.
Tarr reminded citizens that a notice of the reassessment is not a tax bill, and county supervisors are working to ensure that property owners will pay less in taxes than the amounts indicated on the notices they received.
Accomack will decrease its real estate tax rate from 61 cents to 59.5 cents for every $100 of assessed value to help offset the tax increases resulting from the reassessments, which rose about 9.5%, he said.
Accomack residents were about to pay more in personal property taxes this year for “the first time in history” due to values of cars, small trucks, and motorcycles rising 22%, Tarr said.
Accomack supervisors will decrease the personal property tax rate so vehicle owners will pay “the same or maybe a little bit more” than previously, he said.
According to the Virginia Employment Commission, the unemployment rate was 4.5% in Northampton and 3.7% in Accomack as of February, the most recent period for which data was available.
The “real problem” with unemployment is people who choose not to work when there are jobs available, Tarr said.
Rocket Lab will build a new rocket manufacturing plant in Wallops Island that’s expected to create 250 jobs, and Accomack is working to provide housing for the employees that the new jobs will attract to the county, he said.
Del. Robert Bloxom later explained Captains Cove has been targeted for future housing development because it already has public water and sewer service.
“If you do not have public sewer it’s very hard to compete” for affordable and workforce housing. “It doesn’t matter (about) housing tax credits. It doesn’t matter how much money A-NPDC (Accomack-Northampton Planning District Commission) puts out there,” he said.
Installing water and sewer systems “drives the cost too high” for housing projects, but in towns that already have water and sewer service, housing “organically will grow … and you can do higher density housing, which is cheaper,” Bloxom said.
With more jobs comes a need for more childcare, so Accomack is using $600,000 of its American Rescue Plan funding to establish a Child Care Start-Up and Expansion Grant Program. Grants of up to $150,000 each may be awarded to starting or expanding child care programs, Tarr said.
Bloxom and State Sen. Lynwood Lewis provided an update on the work of the Virginia General Assembly in Richmond.
Lewis observed Virginia now has “divided government” (the Senate has a Democratic majority and the House of Delegates has a Republican majority) but that’s “generally … a good thing” as it encourages bipartisanship.
The responsibility to make decisions on environmental permits has shifted from governor-appointed citizen boards to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The shift generated controversy but was generally supported by Lewis, who worked to ensure public input would still be a part of the permitting process. Permitting is complex, and Virginia was one of only two states (the other is California) that had citizen boards participating in the process, Lewis noted.
Both houses of the General Assembly are working toward finishing the state budget; they generally agree on what to fund but disagree on how much funding should be included: the budgets proposed by the Senate and House of Delegates are $3 billion apart, he said.
For the first time, the proposed state budget includes full funding of $286 million for the Agriculture Best Management Practices or BMP program, which had only about $9 million in funding in 2014, Lewis said.
The budget also includes 5% raises for teachers, which will help Virginia get closer to matching or surpassing the national average for teacher salaries, he said.
Both budget proposals include funding for waterways and dredging, Lewis added.
Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants to eliminate the 2.5% grocery tax; the Senate would prefer to reduce it to 1%. Reducing the state’s gas tax also is on the table, Bloxom said.
The duo was asked a question relating to the legal sale of marijuana, to which Lewis replied the bill that was intended to establish the framework for selling marijuana legally is dead. For now, marijuana possession is legal but its sale is not, he said.
They also were presented with a concern about flooding of roads. Lewis said he had proposed incorporating coastal resiliency into the Virginia Department of Transportation’s Smart Scale program, but the initiative didn’t pass.
Lewis considered it a “first date for transportation planning and (coastal) resiliency” and believed that eventually the two will come together.
“We’re moving down that road … and I think, ultimately, we’ll get there,” he said.