House committee’s rejection of local sales tax bill could throw Charlottesville’s Buford Middle School reconfiguration project into jeopardy

A woman in a mask speaks into a microphone in front of other masked people

Friday morning, a finance subcommittee in the House of Delegates rejected three proposed bills that would give localities the right to levy sales taxes to pay for new school construction. 

Charlottesville officials are counting on the General Assembly approving such bills in order to pay for the city’s much anticipated $75 million reconfiguration project for Buford Middle School and Walker Upper Elementary School.

It’s still possible the House will give localities that authority in another way. Earlier this week, the Senate passed two similar bills, which will go before the House after the chambers have crossover in mid February. Crossover is when bills that have passed the House and Senate chambers are then sent to each other. 

“We’ll have another chance when the Senate bills come over to the House,” said Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville, who carried some of the bills that did not clear the subcommittee Friday. “That means Virginians whose delegates’ blocked this bill need to make their voices heard if they want the vote to change.”

Meanwhile, Hudson noted that she has already heard some bipartisan support from members of the House, despite the some members of the eight-person Finance Subcommittee #3 not approving the bills. There are 100 delegates in the House.

“It’s my understanding that because we still have the Senate bills, our lobbyists in Richmond are going to continue to regroup and strategize and get back to us when there’s more concrete action that we can take to help support the Senate bills,” said Charlottesville School Board Chair Lisa Larson-Torres.

Still, the committee’s rejection is concerning to local officials.

If Charlottesville is not allowed to issue a sales tax, it would have to rely exclusively on the city’s capital budget to pay for the new middle school. The capital budget is fed mainly by local property taxes.

Over the next five years, the city will have about $125 million in that budget, said Charlottesville Mayor Lloyd Snook.

“That’s $25 million a year max for every capital need in the city,” Snook said. “If we’re taking $75 million to go to one school, that leaves $50 million for all the affordable housing projects we want to do, new fire trucks, new police radios, any HVAC system repairs in the city.

“If we don’t get the sales tax increase approval from the general assembly, it very seriously disrupts our ability to do anything that we want to do in the next decade if we go ahead with this proposal.”

Presently, only nine Virginia localities have the ability to levy local sales tax increases for school construction. Several bills submitted this session seek to either add a number of localities to that list or make it possible for every locality in Virginia to do so. 

This is a developing story.