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Public speaks out

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Most against proposed real estate tax increase

By John Barnhart

    Public hearings on the county’s budget have been sparsely attended in past years, but this year was different.
    A proposal to raise the real estate tax rate half-filled Gibson Memorial Auditorium at the Bedford Science and Technology Center, where the hearings are held. A majority of the people attending came to oppose a proposed tax hike — something that was visually revealed when Tommy Scott, before speaking, asked everybody who didn’t want their taxes raised to stand up.
    A steady stream of speakers came to the podium for about two hours. Most observed the three- minute limit for speakers and all were civil. The majority spoke against the tax rate increase and some accused the school board and county school administrators of a lack of spending discipline. The Sheriff’s Office also came in for criticism.
    “I am against the rate increase,” said Tony Claytor.
    Claytor suggested cutting the Sheriff’s Office budget and using the money to pay for fire apparatus. He also said the school board should use the extra money coming from the state, as the result of Bedford’s reversion to town status, to build a new middle school “instead of giving it to the superintendent to waste.”

Opposing a tax increase
    Anne Briscoe, who opposed the tax rate increase, said that Americans now spend more on taxes than they do on food, housing and clothing combined. Jim McKelvey said all costs are going up at a time when incomes are going down.
    “This is not a time to raise taxes,” he said.
    McKelvey also criticized supervisors who are members of the Republican Party and suggested a tax increase.
    “Some of you folks up there call yourselves Republicans,” he said. “Read the creed again.”
    “You people know we didn’t elect you folks to raise taxes,” said Ricky Wilkerson.
    “You are asking a tax increase from people who live on fixed incomes, who live week to week,” he later said. “Where are they going to get the money?”
    “I can’t raise my prices every day,” said Alfred Robey, who identified himself as a business owner. Robey opposed the tax increase.
    “We implore you to not raise taxes,” said Jean Gray. Gray said county residents are already struggling to pay the current county tax rate.
    Craig Newman came to the podium with difficulty and with the aid of a crutch.
    “I myself have a limited income,” he told the supervisors.
    Newman said he lives on a disability income of $750 a month.
    “There must be some other way than the easy way of raising taxes,” he told the supervisors.
    Carol Major criticized the school board.
    “They had $6 million given to them,” she said. “Where is it?”
    “We do not need a tax increase, since there are a number of credible ways to address real budget shortfalls without raising taxes,” said Greg Modzelewski.
     Modzelewski stressed the importance of the landfill’s needs.
    “Since solid waste is one service that every resident and business uses weekly, that should have been the first service to be fully funded before any of the others,” he said.
    “I’m begging you, please don’t raise taxes,” said Earl Hackworth. Hackworth said he owns a string of pawnshops and sees people coming in to pawn things because they need money in an emergency, the result of a stagnant economy.
    “I’m going to come up with the money [to pay higher taxes] some way,” he said. “There are people who can’t.”
    Tommy Scott, who owns a small business, said he employed 15 people six years ago. Now he’s down to 10.
    “Everyone took salary cuts,” he said.
    “I can’t go out and force people to pay me more money when I need more money,” he concluded.

Business chimes in
    Jody Lyons, a realtor, said keeping taxes low is key to bringing business to Bedford. A realtor, Lyons said he has a letter of intent from a business that wants to locate in a development he handles in Moneta. Bedford County’s low taxes are why the business wants to come here.
    Ray Lyons, a pastor, described his church’s growing experiences.
    “One thing we did learn is that you can’t live beyond your means,” he said.
    Josiah Tillett questioned the idea that raising taxes would take courage on the part of the supervisors.
    “It’s not as hard as it is for us to pay [the increased taxes],” Tillett said.
    “I’m a cattle farmer in the county,” said Richard Ruff
    Ruff compared his tax bill, when the tax rate was 60 cents, with what it is now. Although the current tax rate is 10 cents lower, he pays substantially more because the assessed value of his land has more than doubled. He said increases in the assessed value of property has resulted in huge tax increases without a rate increase.
    He also questioned the quality of the county’s school system. Ruff said a recent graduate from a county high school, who was working for him, did not know the difference between even and odd numbers. He said it only took him five minutes to teach this concept to the young man.
    “He’s teachable,” Ruff said. “The teachers just didn’t do it.”
Some offered support
    Two former New Jersey residents had different takes on the proposed tax rate increase.
    Don Barlow, who supports the increase, said New Jersey is one of the most highly taxed states in the country and folks in Bedford County don’t know what high taxes are.
    Neil Vacchiano, who opposed the tax rate increase, had a different view. He said he left New Jersey because of that state’s high taxes. He suggested that Barlow left New Jersey for the same reason.
    A small number of speakers spoke in favor of the tax increase.
    “I believe we have issues that must be dealt with,” he said
    “We have a notoriously underfunded school system,” Ashwell said, citing one issue. He also mentioned the need for money to buy firetrucks as another.
    “I truly wish we didn’t have to raise taxes,” he said. However, Ashwell felt there were no other options.
    “It’s time to stop boasting about the fact that we haven’t raised taxes in 12 years,” said Mary Jo Boone.
    Cheryl Sprouse, speaking on behalf of the Bedford County Education Association (BCEA), said the schools aren’t perfect, but the school division’s administration is trying to look out for the students. Sprouse said the BCEA had asked for a tax increase six years ago.
    “If we had done that six years ago, none of us would be at the table asking for what we are asking now,” she said.
    Others who supported the proposed tax increase cited the school system’s needs. Becky Griffith suggested that cuts in the school budget over recent years are why some schools are now accredited with warning.
    “I’m asking you to raise my taxes,” said Fred Glover. Glover, a former Bedford County teacher, said a large number of his former colleagues no longer teach in Bedford County.
    “I am not opposed to an increase in the tax rate,” said Jeff Steele.
    Steele said a tax increase is necessary because Bedford County has underfunded many programs. He also noted that Roanoke has a $1.18 cent tax rate and suggested that raising Bedford County’s rate to 53 cents won’t stop people from coming here seeking a lower tax rate.