January 11, 2001
ready for car tax fight
Alfred M. Biddlecomb
RICHMOND – Gov. James S. Gilmore III defended his push to abolish the
car tax Wednesday night and threatened to veto any legislative attempt to
alter his plan, calling anything short of total elimination a tax increase.
With nearly half the personal property tax on automobiles already gone,
Gilmore told the General Assembly during his annual State of the Commonwealth
address that continuing on a path to eliminating the car tax by 2002 would
keep a campaign promise and lift a burden off many Virginians.
“The car tax may not be a heavy burden to some Virginians,”
Gilmore said. “But for many Virginians, one or two hundred dollars
makes a real difference in their lives.”
The plan for eliminating 70 percent of the car tax this year is contingent
on a growth in state tax revenue estimates by 5 percent. Tax revenue estimates
fell to 3.2 percent this year as the economy slowed, but Gilmore introduced
a plan to use a lump sum payment from the national tobacco settlement to
pump revenue growth back up above 5 percent.
This plan received mixed reviews from lawmakers on both sides of the
aisle, many who say the state should keep the car tax reduction at its present
47.5 percent until the economy picks up again. One of those not too sure
about Gilmore’s plans is Sen. John H. Chichester, R-Stafford, who represents
part of Prince William County.
Chichester, the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, said
that sagging revenues are a sign that total elimination of the tax should
“I think the triggers have been pulled and we’re far below what’s
needed in the budget to go ahead with it,” Chichester said following
Gilmore’s speech. “I think it would be prudent to move ahead as cautiously
as we can.”
The Senate Finance Committee meets today, but no one’s sure if Gilmore’s
plan to use the tobacco money to support the car tax plan will come up at
that time. Gilmore attempted unsuccessfully last year to use the state’s
unallocated portion of the settlement toward road construction.
With all 100 seats in the House of Delegates and the state’s top three
elected offices up for election in November, Gilmore dared legislators to
cross him on the car tax issue.
“Because the money is already in the budget, any bill that would
halt the car tax cut I believe would amount to a tax increase,” Gilmore
said. “Any bill that would cut the car tax less than 70 percent would
also amount to a tax increase, in my judgment. The car tax is about people
Gilmore, who is about to take over as chairman of the Republican National
Committee, stayed on message with the national GOP’s assertion the economy
is slowing down, but said it’s not an excuse to back away from the car tax.
The current economic slow down, Gilmore said, was the result of over-compensation
by the Federal Reserve to slow the national economy.
“It is possible that the Federal Reserve Bank may have tightened
the economy too much and not corrected their actions soon enough,”
The General Assembly will debate the car tax and other bills including
amendments to the state’s two-year $48 billion budget during the legislative
session, which began Wednesday.
Delegate John A. Rollison, R-Woodbridge, who has clashed with Gilmore
on transportation issues in the past, says the car tax is popular with voters
and will get a lot of attention during the 2001 session.
“It’s the number one priority and hopefully we’ll get it done on
time,” Rollison said.
Rollison’s battles will be on the transportation front, where he’s still
upset at the Gilmore administration for taking money from the state’s transportation
fund replacing it with debt.
“We need to have real money to deal with our problems,” Rollison
said. “We suffered a net loss in cash and we’ve got a long way to go
just to get back to where we were.”
Rollison also hopes to get a bill through the legislature allowing Northern
Virginia residents to vote on whether a half cent increase in the state
sales tax should be used to fund regional transportation projects.
Democrats, many of whom refused to applaud Gilmore’s statements on the
car tax during the 45-minute speech, say money in the state’s budget should
be focused toward teacher pay raises, needed social programs and the elimination
of the state sales tax on food.
“Yes, we made a promise to cut the car tax, but we made other promises
as well,” Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple, D-Arlington, said during the
Democratic response to Gilmore’s speech. “The governor’s actions sadly
set the wrong course for our commonwealth.”
Democrats criticized Gilmore’s budget decisions for using debt to finance
his initiatives and Whipple scolded Gilmore’s reliance on debt to fund the
car tax, saying, “We are known as the digital dominion, but we shouldn’t
be known as the debt dominion.”
The General Assembly was gaveled into session earlier in the day with
the passage of new rules which limit the amount of legislation each member
can sponsor during the 46-day session.
Lawmakers were encouraged to file most of their bills in December while
limiting each delegate to six bills after the session opens. Senators will
be limited to 10 bills during the session.
The new rules passed both houses overwhelmingly, and lawmakers hope
it will reduce the logjam of bills that accompanies the beginning of each
county plan for tourism
City Council and the Prince William Board of County Supervisors agreed
Wednesday night to work together to work out terms for the creation of an
independent tourism program for the county and city and on plans for renovating
the Judicial Center and Adult Detention Center.
The two legislative bodies met jointly – for the first time in three
years – in the lobby of the Manassas Regional Airport terminal building.
Few points were argued between the two groups; most of the meeting was overview
on the courthouse/jail complex, Freedom Museum expansion and a proposed
Convention and Visitors Bureau.
A joint 15-member commission on the courthouse complex will be formed
over the next month to review the plans, funding and schedule of the additions
to the complex and recommend funding responsibilities for the city.
“I think this is a way to finally bring this project, that is important
to both jurisdictions, to fruition,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman
Sean Connaughton, R.
The city will also work out its relationship with the new tourism bureau,
in terms of funding responsibility and representation on its board of directors,
over the next few months.
Both the courthouse and tourism initiative are on a short schedule,
staff told the officials.
Construction on the $15.1 million Judicial Center is expected to begin
next spring, with the start of work on the Adult Detention Center slated
for summer 2003 while the Judicial Center is being completed, Connaughton
A report from the courthouse commission is due back by May 15.
City Manager Larry Hughes said the funding responsibility for the city,
some of which is dictated by state codes, will be firmed up. The average
percentage of inmates in the county jail from the city is 10 percent, but
in the last two years that number dipped to 5 and 7 percent, staff said.
Supervisor Hilda Barg, D-Woodbridge, pointed out that city residents
arrested by county police are part of the county totals. But that logic
works both ways, said council member Steve Randolph.
With the tourism bureau, Manassas Museum System Director Scott Harris
said Monday that the bureau will benefit both jurisdictions with increased
revenue from tourism, and representatives from both sides agreed Wednesday.
Connaughton said the tourism working group that over the last year studied
how to form the independent 501(c) tax-exempt entity came back with the
need to clarify the relationship that Manassas City would have with the
“It’s something we need to clarify and establish right from the
beginning,” Connaughton said.
Points of negotiation include the city’s annual contribution to tourism
efforts, which has held steady at $35,000, compared to the county’s contributions
that have increased to $1 million from raised hotel taxes. The county wants
the city to increase its share, said city officials, who on their side have
said they want more representation on the bureau’s board of directors, which
would be made up of 11 members from county organizations and one from the
Council member Xerk White said at the Monday council meeting that a
second representative from Manassas should be on the board of directors.
White pointed out Wednesday night to the county that representation
on boards is an important issue between the two jurisdictions.
He said he believed the city needs another representative on the Prince
William Library Board, in light of heightened concern over the dangers of
porn on the Internet and accessibility in libraries. The airport commission
added a second county representative when the airport became more important
to the county, he said.
In other presentations, the Freedom Museum is negotiating with the county
to lease 29 acres for a nominal fee and potential for transfer of ownership
for a museum/hangar facility. Hughes said the city has to resolve issues
with the Federal Aviation Administration to meet regulations for museum
access to the runway. The museum will have vintage aircraft that operate,
but it is an airport, Hughes said, and the access issues will take time
to work out.
· Contact Chris Newman at [email protected].
board to relocate students
The public had its last opportunity Tuesday night to provide feedback
on a plan to move more than 700 students in west end county schools to relieve
School officials presented boundary plans for moving students from three
existing elementary schools to other schools, as well as to the new $11.2
million Braemar Elementary which will open in September, 2001.
The plan would affect three existing elementary schools: Bristow Run,
Tyler and Mountain View.
“This is in response to explosive growth on the west end,” said
David Beavers, planning analyst with Prince William County Schools. “The
goal is to balance the student load among affected elementary schools to
plus or minus 10 percent of average capacity,” he said.
Currently Bristow Run Elementary is at 155 percent of capacity. That
means while the school is supposed to house 630 students, 977 students go
For that reason a boundary committee is expected to recommend that some
students from Tyler be moved to Braemar and students from Mountain View
be moved to Tyler. Some students from Bristow Run, which currently serves
the Braemar community, will be moved to the new Braemar.
The latest plan also calls for six additional classrooms at Sinclair,
so that some Coverstone community students can be transferred to a closer
Of the three existing schools Tyler is the least crowded with a capacity
of 548 students and enrollment in 2000 of 512.
“This takes a good plan and makes it better,” said Gary Testut,
who has two children at Mountain View Elementary.
The plans were developed by the boundary planning committee, comprised
of parents with elementary school children likely to be affected. The first
public hearing was in December. Tuesday night’s hearing at Stonewall Jackson
High School was the last before the committee makes its recommendation to
the school board Feb. 7.
The school board is scheduled to take action Feb. 28.
orders railroad retrial
MANASSAS – A Prince William judge said he will order a new trial in the
civil case of a man hit by a Norfolk Southern freight train, saying a jury’s
decision to award the plaintiff more than $60 million from the railroad
“This verdict bears no reasonable relationship to the damages proved.
It is unfair,” Circuit Court Judge William D. Hamblen wrote Monday
to lawyers in the matter.
Donald J. French was hit by the train on May 2, 1997, as he worked at
the RaceTrac gas station off U.S. 29 in Gainesville.
French, now of Williamsburg, suffered a brain injury, depression and
crippled leg. He filed a civil lawsuit against Norfolk Southern Railway
A Prince William jury in October awarded French nearly $46 million in
compensatory damages. With interest, the award would total more than $60
million. It would have been the largest verdict ever in a mild traumatic
brain injury case, French’s attorneys said.
Attorneys on each side reacted strongly to Hamblen’s decision.
Richmond attorney Aubrey Russell Bowles III, who represents Norfolk Southern,
said he was shocked at the jury’s decision, and relieved by Hamblen’s.
“I’m very relieved because I’ve been practicing law since 1958 and
primarily representing people like railroads,” he said. “[Before]
this verdict I had never paid more than a million dollars” except in
Hampton attorney Stephen M. Smith, one of French’s attorneys, said he
was shocked by Hamblen’s decision.
“I’m devastated for my client because he thought he could get this
chapter of his life behind him,” Smith said. “I’m concerned about
his ability to handle the stress of another trial.”
Smith said he is researching whether French can appeal Hamblen’s decision.
If he can’t and there is a new trial, Smith said French will ask for
double the $50 million plus interest he asked for during the trial.
“We questioned whether or not we had sued for enough early on,”
Norfolk Southern lawyers asked Hamblen to order a new trial because
they said improper statements were made by French’s attorneys, and some
evidence was admitted erroneously. Those actions prejudiced the jury and
resulted in a verdict that was the result of passion, the railroad argued.
Hamblen wrote that French’s attorneys did make improper statements and
arguments during the trial.
And the judge said they presented some evidence that left jurors with
the impression that Norfolk Southern “engaged in some nefarious behavior
after the derailment intended to conceal or obfuscate its responsibility
Those factors “constituted an invitation to the jury to punish
the defendant, an invitation that was ultimately accepted,” Hamblen
“They were not, as a matter of fact, guided by passion or prejudice
or any desire to punish the railroad,” Smith said. “They were
convinced and impressed by the evidence of the horror that Don French goes
through every day. His life is an ongoing nightmare and they were aware
Railroad employees failed to set a switch in the proper position, causing
the derailment, federal government investigators determined. Norfolk Southern
admitted liability, but disputed the amount of money it should pay French.
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