By Alex Bridges
At least two state legislators say they have Shenandoah County's interests in mind when the General Assembly convenes in January.
Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, and Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, met with members of the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors on Thursday to talk about local needs and concerns.
Gilbert told supervisors he understood the pressure put upon localities by the state, including mandates that often come with little or no funding. Gilbert advised he sees willingness among lawmakers to pull back on the state's "aid to localities" requirement that requires local governments to return funding they receive. Gilbert said he made no promises but understood the pain the mandate brings.
"Continuing to add burdens to you and then continuing to take money away from you is not fair," Gilbert said.
Supervisor David Ferguson expressed frustration over what he called a lack of funding for education.
"You wanna put mandates to 'em? Fine. Put mandates to 'em and let the money be used," Ferguson said. "If you're not gonna fund it then take away the mandates so that we don't have to continue to find dollars to take care of the mandates that do flow with us."
Ferguson told the legislators he hears from school officials who say they don't have enough money to pay for the system's needs.
"Then on the reverse side we have our funding cut and it's difficult to stand up and say 'yeah, I hear what you're saying but we're not going to fund this or this or this,'" Ferguson said. "I just think education as a whole, just like transportation, and I'm sure you all got a whole basket of priorities, but to me education ranks right up there."
But the frustration is misplaced and that the state has increased education funding over the years, according to Obenshain.
"Education, transportation, law enforcement -- you don't have any more fundamental responsibilities than those three things," Obenshain said.
The General Assembly faces potentially sweeping legislation to overhaul transportation funding, Gilbert advised. Such legislation could morph into a broader approach to reform taxation, he added.
Related to transportation, Chairman Conrad Helsley commented on the dangers of traveling on Interstate 81 and asked whether the state planned to address the problem. Gilbert said he'd support adding an additional lane in directions inside the current footprint of the highway. But Gilbert warned that if the state puts tolls on Interstate 95, the move would likely push tractor trailers to I-81. More lanes likely wouldn't prevent crashes caused by speeding drivers, Helsley said.
Both legislators said they would not want to see the state take away the county's right to collect a tax on machinery and tools -- a major source of revenue for localities. Shenandoah County could lose $2.3 million if the state eliminated the tax, according to local officials. Elected leaders in both Shenandoah and Warren counties voiced opposition to the legislative effort. The bill failed in the House 65-35.
"It's a considerable revenue source for us that's gonna be just gone and I think that's a concern for all the counties," Helsley said.
Gilbert voted in favor of the bill when it came before the full House in February. Gilbert reiterated his opposition to the machinery and tools levy that he called part of "an arcane tax system" in place in Virginia. But the delegate said he understood taking away the source would hurt local budgets.
"I know that that vote as it stood by itself would have that net effect but certainly my broader intention would be to revisit and reform some of the ways we conduct our taxation system in Virginia," Gilbert said. "I don't think focusing on inhibiting economic activity in the private sector is the way to go about doing that."
Obenshain echoed Gilbert's sentiment and noted such an abrupt loss of the tax revenue likely would not happen.
"I understand that simply chopping off that revenue is not an option," Obenshain said. "I personally believe that just because we've always done something one way doesn't mean we always ought to."
Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or firstname.lastname@example.org