Lynchburg residents gathered Tuesday evening at Monument Terrace downtown to protest the city’s proposed real property tax increase — one that could trigger higher bills for many residents following the 2021 reassessment that saw total taxable real estate values proposed to increase 7.5%.
At 7 p.m., the crowd moved from the terrace to Lynchburg City Council chambers, where about 50 people gathered for a public hearing, with speakers urging council to equalize the tax rate.
The total assessed value of property in Lynchburg is proposed to increase from $5.71 billion to $6.14 billion after the recent reassessment — an increase of about $428 million — due to appreciation, growth and rezoning, the city’s assessor has said.
The current real estate tax rate sits at $1.11 per $100 of assessed value, and if city council elects to adopt this same rate, city revenues would see an increase of about $5 million annually.
In order to equalize the rate and levy the same amount of real estate tax as last year, the tax rate would have to be lowered to about $1.033 per $100 of assessed value.
Following more than two hours of discussion, and a majority of councilors indicating they would like more time to discuss the issue, Ward III Councilman Jeff Helgeson motioned for council to equalize the rate. His motion ultimately failed, 2-5, with Ward IV Councilman Chris Faraldi also voting in favor of equalization.
At-large Councilman Randy Nelson also indicated a desire to equalize the tax rate but said he would like council to take more time to consider what will be impacted and to think more on the concerns of the citizens.
At-large Councilwoman Treney Tweedy, Mayor MaryJane Dolan and Ward II Councilman Sterling Wilder also said they would like to take more time to discuss the issue.
Many of the residents protesting the increase said keeping the tax rate the same would be particularly harmful to residents in the midst of the pandemic.
Skye Riggleman was one of the Lynchburg residents who gathered at the monument steps. Riggleman said with Lynchburg businesses closing “left and right” and with many residents facing impacted incomes or loss of jobs, every little bit added to taxes only made living in the city more difficult.
“I don’t want the number one export out of Lynchburg to be the people that live here so they can go move to the county next door,” Riggleman said.
This was a concern echoed by Lynchburg resident James Berrigan, who said he knows people who are looking to move out of the city if taxes are increased and said he might need to consider a similar option.
“I love it here,” he said of Lynchburg, and he would hate to leave — but “my concern is the higher the taxes go, the harder it is for people to make ends meet.”
An intent to move out of the city following an increase — or because of tax increases in previous years — was reiterated by many of Tuesday night’s speakers. Others said the proposed rate would affect renters, as well, as landlords would raise rent to meet the new costs.
The gathering that preceded the hearing drew support from local representatives and candidates for state office, including entrepreneur Pete Snyder, one of seven candidates vying for the Republican nomination for governor, and Del. Wendell Walker, R-Lynchburg.
Walker, who also spoke at council’s hearing, said he, like so many other residents, is retired and lives on a fixed income. He encouraged council to “say no” to the increase and equalize the rate to make things easier on city residents.
Similarly, Snyder called the idea of raising taxes in the middle of a global pandemic “absolutely crazy.”
“It’s wrong, and we need to stand up and speak out,” Snyder said. Calling the pandemic the worst crisis Virginia and Lynchburg has seen in 100 years, he said residents still haven’t recovered, and the city leaders need to listen up.
“Enough is enough,” he told the assembled crowd.
While all of the in-person speakers opposed the increase, a handful of letters submitted to council supported maintaining the current rate.
Comments from these residents said maintaining the current rate only would result in negligible increases to bills, an impact that would be worth ensuring no city services are impacted and that revenues remain strong.
On Tuesday, prior to the public hearing, Faraldi told The News & Advance what he hears from residents is, “Don’t raise my taxes, plain and simple.” He said he’s heard from about 300 residents across phone calls, emails and messages on social media.
“I’m hearing folks say, ‘Find a way to make it work,’” Faraldi said. “And I think we do have a way to make it work.”
He said there are options that council could explore, such as lowering the unassigned general fund balance, that would not result in a loss of city services.
Budget adoption is slated for May 25.