Teachers protest at BOCS meeting April 2018

A group of Prince William County teachers protest outside the Prince William Board of Supervisors meeting April 10. The teachers are advocating for cost-of-living raises to keep the county's teacher pay competitive with surrounding jurisdictions.

Don’t raise the technology tax.

That was the message from nearly half of the 18 speakers Tuesday night at a public hearing on the $3.1 billion Prince William budget County Executive Chris Martino proposes for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Martino’s budget would be funded by maintaining the current real-estate tax rate of $1.125 per $100 in assessed value, but average annual tax bills would still rise about $146 next year, thanks largely to rising real-estate values.

However, the real-estate tax rate wasn’t what was most talked about Tuesday. That was a proposal by Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart to nearly triple the property-tax rate on “programmable computer equipment,” a change primarily aimed at data centers.

Stewart, R-At Large, has pointed out the county’s property-tax rate for computer equipment, at $1.25 per $100 in assessed value, is lower than the personal-property tax rate of $3.70 per $100 that residents pay for their cars and trucks.

Stewart has proposed raising the technology tax rate to match the personal-property rate --$3.70 per $100 in assessed value – as it is in other jurisdictions. The county cut its computer-property tax rate more than 20 years ago to draw high-tech firms, and later data centers, to Prince William. But now that that market is established, Stewart thinks it’s time to bring the rate back up, a change that could generate as much as $20 million in revenue.

That doesn’t sit well with Josh Levi, vice president of policy for the Northern Virginia Technology Council, though.

Prince William has built a reputation as a competitive location for data centers due in large part to the affordable technology-tax rate, he said Tuesday, and tripling it would impact current data centers as well hurt efforts to recruit technology businesses.

“Many data centers that are already in this county are actively planning to grow and expand their investments and tax base here, some quite substantially,” Levi said. “We believe this proposal would harm those efforts” if approved.

In addition, other localities have recently cut their technology-tax rates to try to attract data centers, he said, so Prince William would hurt its competitiveness by increasing its rate.

Betty Dean, chair-elect of the Prince William Chamber of Commerce, also spoke against the technology tax, saying data centers have accounted for 92 percent of new capital investment in the county since 2012.

But, she said, the technology tax impacts not just data centers but nearly every business, “from the IT company with two employees and 100 computers, to the auto-repair shop whose 30 technicians each have a laptop backed by servers and routers, to restaurants tracking orders and physicians tracking patients.”

Also, Dean said, the supervisors for years have emphasized a desire to attract businesses with high-paying jobs. But those businesses have to equip employees with technology.

“The additional taxes you are considering will dis-incent not just investments in new technology, but new jobs,” Dean said.

Stewart, however, wasn’t swayed by any of the speakers or their arguments.

“I’ve heard it all before,” he said.

Others on Tuesday spoke about public safety and teacher pay.

“Our teachers are educating our youth, which is the future,” said Aaron Edmond, who lives in the Occoquan District.

He was part of a group of Prince William teachers, parents and school supporters who protested outside the county government center before the public hearing started, demonstrating largely about a cost-of-living adjustment raise they hope supervisors will consider adding to their budget.

Martino’s spending plan would fund a school board budget that includes money that would be used for a “step” pay raise, which will provide an average 2.7 percent boost for all school-division teachers and staff, but it does not include the additional 2-percent COLA pay increase sought by teachers.

That prompted a sign Forest Park High School teacher Shannon Geraghty brought to the demonstration. It bore a message that was a takeoff on an old 7-Up soft-drink slogan, saying, “PWC/serving up the un-COLA/We’ve been duped.”

Barbara Larrimore, whose children attend Prince William schools, also was part of the protest and later contacted a reporter with a statement pointing out that teachers are the first people she trusts with her offspring other than family. Larrimore is one of 20 candidates vying to be appointed interim school board chair. The board is scheduled to pick a successor April 18 for Ryan Sawyers, who resigned from his post March 7.

“Their job is arguably one of the hardest and one of the most important in the world,” she said. “Their pay should reflect this importance and the value they bring to society. No teacher should have to work three jobs to support their family.”

And, as if proving Larrimore’s point, Riley O’Casey, a middle school teacher who leads the local teachers’ union, the Prince William Education Association, said more teachers might have come to the demonstration — if they hadn’t had to go to second jobs they work to make ends meet.

The supervisors are scheduled to approve a budget and tax rates April 24.

Reach Jonathan Hunley at jhunley@fauquier.com

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