Head-scratchers leave taxpayers holding the bag

Published 7:13 pm Thursday, March 30, 2023

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In a perfect system, elected officials would make no decision with ramifications beyond their current term in office. That’s impractical, of course, as essential infrastructure must be built, legal decisions made, property occasionally purchased and sold, and money borrowed, to name a few.

Unfortunately, such a system lacks accountability for bad decisions, as Isle of Wight County taxpayers recently learned the hard way, not once but twice.

Most expensive of the two was an $8.3 million refund to International Paper Co. after the Virginia Supreme Court called foul on a sneaky scheme to subvert a local judge’s ruling that the county had failed to take into account depreciating equipment values at IP’s Franklin mill when assessing machinery and tools taxes.

The county increased the tax rate for the 2017-18 fiscal year enough to recoup what the county owed IP in court-ordered refunds for prior years. Current Supervisors William McCarty, Rudolph Jefferson and Dick Grice joined then-Board of Supervisors Chairman Rex Alphin in approving the scheme. Current Supervisor Joel Acree was absent for that meeting. Mark Popovich was board attorney at the time. 

Regrettably, the county kept doubling down on the scheme as it was challenged in court by IP. By December 2022, some $3 million in interest had accumulated on the $5.4 million refund owed. The Supreme Court, in ruling for IP, declared that “the County must now live with the choices it made during this litigation.” More accurately, the taxpayers must live with a terrible decision by its elected officials. Ouch.

Not to mention, what a poor message to send to current and prospective future employers and major industry in our county: If you don’t pay us what we say you owe us, even if a judge says we’re wrong, we’ll scheme and connive to get that amount anyway.  

Current supervisors should have a new appreciation for the long-range impact of elected officials’ bad decisions after taking a bath on a land purchase by their predecessors 15 years prior. Then-Supervisors Stan Clark, James B. Brown Jr., Phillip Bradshaw and Tom Wright III voted in 2008 to pay $1 million for property at the foot of the James River Bridge that, we now know, had little public or private utility. That it was assessed at just $335,000 at the time should have been a clue. To his credit, then-Supervisor Al Casteen voted no on the purchase. Fifteen years later, the current board has accepted an “unsolicited” offer of $100,000 from a company to harvest and sell oysters on the lot.

Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson tells us the county put the property on the market several years ago and got no interest. 

While at least the property is back on the tax rolls, that’s another $900,000 loss for taxpayers, not counting the lost tax revenue over the past 15 years. Double ouch.