County vs. town: Who has a limited mentality?

An interesting back-and-forth took place at Monday’s South Hill Town Council meeting when Mecklenburg County Supervisor Jim Jennings presented resolutions from the county board of supervisors and Farm Bureau opposing the proposed South Hill cigarette tax.
The supervisors’ resolution used language such as “history,” “heritage,” “taxes” and “economic success” to express the county’s opposition to cigarette taxes in any town in the county.
South Hill town council member Millie Bracey took issue with Jennings, who penned an editorial last week in which he accused town leaders of having a “limited mentality” for considering a cigarette tax, and town council member Ben Taylor chided the board of supervisors and county leadership for the lack of tax revenue coming from tobacco farmers in the county.
Jennings said his editorial represented his own viewpoint and was “directed at anybody discounting an industry that gives so much to the county.”
Bracey responded, “Even with my limited mentality, it’s difficult for me to understand why the Farm Bureau and the board of supervisors should have anything to do with the town’s tax structure. We’re delighted to have you here and to hear your opinions, but we don’t go up there and make decisions for you on the board of supervisors on what your tax structure is going to be. We just end up paying it.”
Jennings answered, “South Hill is a part of Mecklenburg County. I hope it remains a part of Mecklenburg County.”
Bracey pointed out that a large amount of the county’s tax revenue comes from South Hill. “I don’t have the exact amount, but it’s a lot,” she said.
“I can’t disagree with that, but we’re going to represent all the people of Mecklenburg County,” Jennings answered.
Jennings added, “You can skew numbers to do whatever you want to do with them, and apparently I’ve been caught in that trap here.”
Taylor answered, “I may be limited, but I can add, subtract, multiply and divide.”
Taylor paid homage to the town of South Hill’s tobacco heritage, noting the town and Mecklenburg County were built on tobacco from the very beginning.
“We are acutely aware,” Taylor said, but added, “In 1901 when we were incorporated, tobacco was huge. However in 1968… manufacturing passed tobacco as far as number of employees, the first time that had ever happened. As a result of that, since then, manufacturing has grown and tobacco has taken a second seat.”
Taylor said tobacco is still vital for the county but noted only 44 farmers in the county filed as having planted tobacco last year on 4,409 acres. He said the average appraised value for an acre of cleared land where tobacco was planted was between $1,900 and $2,200. He said the value of tobacco farmland was $8.8 million, while the total property value in Mecklenburg County was nearly $4 billion.
“You’re looking at paying .002 percent of the total value on your tobacco land,” further noting farm machinery is exempt from the county’s machinery and tools tax.
Taylor said the town does not want to be “picking on” tobacco users but asked the question of another cash crop that is becoming increasingly legal in the U.S., marijuana, “Are we going to say the same thing? It’s a small group of people smoking dope, so we’re not going to tax them?”
Taylor summed up his thoughts, “We’re saying here that because of the heritage of tobacco that it’s untouchable. I would think people would thank us for looking at other options for tax revenue rather than just whacking them on personal property, whacking them on real estate, whacking them on the other options that we have, which are limited… I think we’re going to be faced with a whole different audience when we do that and we have another public hearing. I think we’re going to be hearing from the people of South Hill saying, ‘Why are we always going up on these taxes? Why can’t we look at other options?’
“We’ve been living with this with the Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors talking about tobacco and its importance, and it is important, but it’s not the driving force in this county that it was. We’re trying to take an active role to grow this community and have good schools, and part of our problems with our schools, they’re flowing out, they can’t get teachers, they’re not paying them. It’s because taxes have been low, and rather than gradually looking at those things, we kept them so low under the guise of tobacco.”