District E candidates

Montgomery County District E candidates Darrell Sheppard, left, and Robbie Jones

The two candidates vying for the Montgomery County Board of Supervisors District E seat have shared statuses as school employees.

But some clear distinctions exist between the two.

Supervisor Darrell Sheppard, the seat’s Republican holder since 2016, maintains a strong reluctance to raising taxes. Robbie Jones, his Democratic challenger, views incremental tax increases as almost a need.

On Election Day Nov. 5, the result of their race will play a key role in the partisan balance of the board of supervisors.

The board has had a 4-3 GOP majority since Sheppard’s first and current term on the board began in 2016. That majority has been a key factor in debates such as whether or not to raise taxes to provide more financial assistance to the schools and on divisive issues such as the 2017 sale of the old Blacksburg High School.

If Jones wins, the board would at the very least swing to a 4-3 Democratic majority. Both Sheppard and the Republican candidate in the only other competitive supervisor race — Sherri Blevins — need to win to maintain the board’s current partisan split.

For his re-election campaign, Sheppard — a former Virginia Tech police officer who now drives a school bus — is leaning on the track record he said himself and the rest of the board has built over the past few years.

That record, he said, includes the decisions to end the stalemates over the old Blacksburg High and old Blacksburg Middle School properties. Each of those properties, which put the county’s and Blacksburg’s governing bodies at odds, were sold during his term. He voted in favor of each of the sales.

Sheppard said a constant complaint he heard before he got elected was: “When are they ever going to sell those pieces of property?”

Sheppard also pointed to the establishment of the Access to Community College Education program and the county’s purchase of more land at the Falling Branch Corporate Park, a sizable property off Interstate 81 that houses warehouse-style employers and some science and technology firms.

The ACCE program, which receives funding from various New River Valley governments, allows area high school graduates to attend New River Community College free of tuition.

ACCE can lead local young adults to acquiring technically oriented skills that many companies often look for when deciding on whether or not to establish a site in a particular locality, Sheppard said.

Jones, a custodian at Christiansburg Middle School, is heavily campaigning on support for Montgomery County schools, which she said has been battling a years-long teacher shortage and aging buildings.

If elected, Jones said she’d like to investigate revenue sharing, or a setup where the county each year allocates a set percentage to the school district. She said she believes some of the job cuts and a past teacher salary freeze could have been avoided had revenue sharing been in place.

Jones said the revenue sharing could also be useful in quickly providing the funding needed to address aging school buildings that are also pressured by rapidly growing enrollment.

“When you have businesses come into a community, what’s the first thing they look at? It’s schools,” she said. “If they have good schools, it will entice them to come to that community.”

Jones said another key part of economic development is access to modern high-speed internet. She said she supports ongoing efforts to try to expand broadband access across the county.

Jones said the broadband is a critical one for her due to the fact that not all school students have access to the same internet speeds. With some school work necessitating online tools, all students need access to quality internet, she said.

“It’s pretty difficult to require students to do homework on their Chromebooks, but then not have internet at home,” she said.

She described broadband access as “just common sense.”

One subject where Jones and Sheppard disagree on is taxes.

Sheppard has been a staunch conservative when it comes to calls to raise taxes. Earlier this year, he was alone in floating the idea of lowering the county’s 89-cent tax rate by a few cents to help some taxpayers better deal with the effect of reassessment.

Reassessment, which occurs every four years in Montgomery County, is when the locality re-evaluates the value of all taxable properties. The county’s reassessment went up by an average of 8%, which meant property taxes would generally go up without the need of a tax rate increase.

Sheppard said one of his primary concerns when it comes to taxes is residents who live on fixed incomes.

“Things have changed so much for people who grew up here,” he said, referring to residents who are not university professors and don’t hold more expandable salaries.

Jones, however, said raising taxes is sometimes unavoidable when considering the county’s complex needs.

“Nobody wants to raise taxes, but we have to be proactive, not reactive.”

Jones said she believes a good way to help the county meet its myriad of financial demands is possibly trying to raise the tax rate by just a cent every other year.

Sheppard, however, said there are a few ways to raise tax revenue without necessarily raising individual property tax bills. He said additional tax revenue can come from the growth of housing. He said the county also needs to keep pressing the Virginia Tech Foundation on its properties, many of which are allowed by the state to pay reduced property taxes.

Jones also openly addressed a felony conviction in her past.

In February 1987, Jones pleaded guilty to grand larceny for welfare fraud, according to Montgomery County Circuit Court records. Jones obtained $328 in assistance from the county’s social services department by means of willfully false statements or representations, according to the grand jury charge.

Jones spent roughly three years on probation.

She said she was facing a great deal of hardships at the time. She said she was pregnant and had to provide for two additional children in the home.

She also said the issue was tied to her simply not reporting her income on time.

“When I say I know what dirt poor is, I know what dirt poor is,” she said in a past interview.

Jones, however, said she doesn’t believe that part of her life affects her current image.

“People who know me, know I’m an honest person,” she said. “The circumstances of my life at that time, not having a telephone … It was just something that happened. I owned up to it. I paid my restitution.”

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