Support for tax hike emerges at James City community forum

JAMES CITY - County Administrator Bryan Hill gave a community forum a crash course in budget issues Wednesday evening, engaging in a lengthy question and answer session at the James City Recreation Center on the advertised 8.2 cent real estate tax increase before the Board of Supervisors.

Hill, joined by supervisors Kevin Onizuk and John McGlennon as well as county staff that included Assistant County Administrator Adam Kinsman, sorted through issues involving stormwater management, economic development, education and maintaining the county's appearance. He also addressed concerns about looming state cuts involving the county's groundwater permit.

"We have some major issues we need to take care of today," Hill said. Throughout the forum Hill made jokes with some of the audience members and his own staff.

"I poke fun. We try to have as much fun as we can," Hill said. "But we have serious issues facing us."

The crowd seemed largely receptive to the idea of a tax increase, especially to tackle stormwater management problems. It was a sharp contrast to typical Board of Supervisors meetings, as noted by some of the forum attendees, where discussions on any tax increases are frequently railed against.

The tax increase would be the first time the county has raised the rate in nearly two decades. It's a necessity, Hill said, to keep providing services at the same level in the face of rapid county growth.

The proposed tax rate, which would move to 85 cents per $100 of assessed value, would cost the average homeowner about $20 more per month. 

One man even asked Hill to consider proposing a larger increase. Hill responded, "do you want me to still be employed?" The remark drew laughs.

Hill paused his remarks at times to provide definitions to the rhetorical alphabet soup of state and federal regulations, departments and bureaucratic terms. He started by addressing some of the groundwater issues, which he said was first brought to his attention when he started in the position of county administrator back in September.  

Hill said he would be meeting next week with a team from "DEQ" to discuss plans to slash the county's groundwater permit from 8.8 million gallons per day to 3.8 million gallons per day. The state has expressed concerns about the replenishment level of aquifers.

"What's DEQ?" asked Onizuk, a prompt for Hill to explain the acronym. But before he could respond the audience chimed in near unison, "Department of Environmental Quality."

"We're trying to understand their mindset and philosophy," Hill said.

He brought up a slide on the overhead projector. It read, "Rain is free but getting rid of it is expensive."

Hill said he's asking for an additional $1.9 million, or 1.71 cents of the proposed tax increase, to help deal with stormwater management. At issue, he said, was county compliance with an obscure federal regulation known as MS4.

Several people raised their hands to ask what that meant. Jody Puckett, communications director for the county, read a definition off her phone: Multilple, Separate, Stormwater, Sewer System. "Thus, MS4," she said. The regulation, mandated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, keeps harmful pollutants from reaching bodies of water.

Hill said part of the additional revenue produced by any granted tax increase would go toward maintaining the county's appearance, particularly on roadways. He said it was important to maintain pristine roads and sidewalks to draw visitors and tourists into the county. He said clean waterways would open the door for more tourism, like fishing tournaments and festivals, and also produce economic activity like harvesting shellfish.

Onizuk nodded his head several times as Hill spoke. Toward the end of the meeting he said in order to get support for the tax increase attendees would have to contact their Board of Supervisors representative. "John and I are just two members. There's three other board members. We need citizen input and participation in the process."

"We're getting a lot of pressure from people saying don't raise any taxes," Onizuk added, saying said the board gives a lot of consideration to issues when people who are not usual speakers at meetings show up. "All of us need to hear from all of you."

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