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Fee plan hits a snag

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By John Barnhart

    The supervisors who were looking at a flat fee to fund opening a new cell at the landfill, and firetruck purchases got some bad news from County Attorney Carl Boggess Monday evening.
    Boggess began by reminding the supervisors that Virginia is a Dillon Rule state. This means that localities do not have the authority to do something unless the Code of Virginia gives them the authority to do it.
    According to Boggess, there is a section in the Code which allows the collection of a solid waste fee. The problem is that it contains a list that specifies which localities are permitted to do this and Bedford County is not one of them. Boggess said the county would have to ask to get on the list and this can’t happen until next year’s General Assembly session, which means the county couldn’t begin assessing such a fee before July 1, 2015.
    Assessing a county-wide fee to generate money for fire trucks poses an even larger problem. Boggess said the Code of Virginia allows localities to set up special fire districts and assess fees within the districts. He said he could not find a Code section that would allow a county-wide fee.
    Becky Jones, the county’s treasurer, told the supervisors collecting the fee would be a problem. She said the Code of Virginia gives her many tools to enforce a tax, but few to enforce a fee in cases where people don’t want to pay.
    Even collecting the fee in the first place could be a problem. People who have mortgages pay the money, as part of their monthly mortgage payments, into an escrow account. The company servicing the mortgage pays the real estate taxes out of this account. Jones said these tax bills go out to mortgage companies electronically. Using the Bedford Regional Water Authority to collect the fee is possible, but not all properties in Bedford County are served by the Water Authority.
    There are also problems as to how the fees would be assessed. District 1 Supervisor Bill Thomasson mentioned mobile home parks. He asked if a fee would be assessed for each mobile home. Jones noted that the same issue applies to apartments. Finally, there was a question as to whether to assess a fee on businesses.
    Jones described the fees as “kind of a square peg in a round hole.”
    However, Jones told the supervisors that, if a fee can be done, then her office will collect it.
    “I’m not sure how I would go after these people [who refuse to pay],” she added.
    District 7 Supervisor Tammy Parker suggested placing a flat tax, as a base, on all real estate and then adding the ad valorem tax rate on top of it. Boggess said that wouldn’t be legal because the state constitution requires real estate taxes to be based on the value of the property.
    Boggess, Jones and some of the supervisors plan to look into what other counties are doing concerning fees.
    “We need some local autonomy,” commented Arrington. “We know more about our local needs than bureaucrats in Richmond do.”
    “I fully intend to carry this through to our delegates,” he said.