Steve Miller, owner of Piedmont Steakhouse on East Cameron Street, is the former board president of Culpeper Renaissance, a Va. Main Street Program. Miller recently was successful in lobbying Town Council to eliminate an annual local fee on alcohol served in Culpeper restaurants around town, including his.

Culpeper Town Council, at a special meeting Thursday, began its consideration of the budget for Fiscal Year 2020 in a generous mood towards the local food scene, cutting in half the annual fee for food trucks and completely eliminating a local alcohol tax imposed yearly on 66 town eateries.

Town leaders also approved a slight cut in the real estate tax due to increased home values and discussed the possibility of bringing a drone program to the Culpeper Police Department.

While the combined restaurant relief of $12,330 represents just a fraction of the proposed $18.33 million General Fund town budget for FY20—an election year—it will still bring some regulatory relief for the town’s many restaurateurs and entrepreneurs cooking up diverse flavor in a small town widely lauded for its food scene.

Restaurant owner burns alcohol tax

The businesses can thank one of those restaurant owners, Steve Miller, for advocating elimination of the local alcohol fee administered under the town’s always-controversial collection of BPOL (Business, Professional & Occupational License) fees based on gross receipts.

In late February Miller, the owner of Piedmont Steakhouse, located in a historic building between Davis and East Cameron streets, spoke before a town council committee to ask that the tax be removed, calling it “an anomaly” in BPOL and “an obsolete line item put in long ago before the town was booming.”

Miller said the fee/tax for him amounts to only around $200 annually, but that he hates having to write that extra check to the town when he already has a state ABC license, which costs much more.

“It seems like a $200 penalty for having a license for something that generates a lot of money in meals tax,” he said.

The alcohol portion of BPOL generates $10,530 yearly with its eight categories—Beer, on and off premises, Wine/Beer, on and off premises, Mixed Beverages up to 100, 100-150 and over 150, and Brewery, which are charged the highest fee, $800.

Permitted by the state, BPOL has long caused heartburn for town officials and business owners who claim it is an unfair tax. In recent budget years, mostly in election years, the town has reduced or removed certain BPOL charges, though many categories still remain, generating around $1 million yearly.

“I am very proud to pay my taxes,” Miller said at the recent council committee meeting in requesting that the alcohol fee go. “This is not about money, but the concept.”

“Slash it,” said Town Councilman Pranas Rimeikis at Thursday’s budget meeting in the Economic Development Center on South Main Street. “The state regulates alcohol sales, then the town imposes an additional fee for the privilege to sell alcohol.”

Councilwoman Meaghan Taylor agreed, saying, “I didn’t know we were doing that and it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Councilman Jon Russell added, “Anything that gets us one step closer to getting rid of BPOL, let’s do it.”

Town Council also chopped in half to $200 the annual BPOL fee charged to nine food trucks set up and traveling around the area, including several offering Latin American fare.

“We’re a food truck-friendly town,” Taylor remarked after council quickly concurred a reduction was in order to the $400 tax the state permits at a maximum of $500. The new $200 fee will go into effect at the start of the new fiscal year. Town meals tax revenues for this fiscal year are forecast at $4.2 million with a $150,000 increase expected in FY20.

Slight real estate tax relief, too

Residents will also likely see town tax relief for real estate in FY20 as home values jumped 9.47 percent in the latest county assessment, meaning the “equalized” rate will go from 10 to 9 cents for every $100 of assessed value, or something close to it.

The actual, maximum equalized rate is 9.2 cents, which would generate $10,000 in additional revenue in FY20, but would have to be advertised as a tax increase. Town Manager Chris Hively also presented as an option, 9.1 cents, a $13,000 tax cut, or just simply, 9 cents, worth $30,000.

Town Councilman Keith Price favored the lowest tax option and so did others on council while Vice Mayor Billy Yowell preferred not giving something away when 9.1 cents would still technically be a tax cut. Either way, town real estate taxes will be lower in FY20.

It’s a bird, it’s a plane—it’s Big Brother?

Meanwhile, high in the air, two drones—or unmanned aerial vehicles—will likely join the Culpeper Police Department as part of a proposed $55,000 budget request.

A PD report stated the drones would be used for citizen safety, to enhance timely resource management in a critical call of service, for traffic reconstruction and analysis, surveillance and crowd management and other municipal applications, such as inspections.

The police department report noted increased calls for service to find missing endangered children and adults with developmental disabilities. Officers last year rescued a little girl with autism who had wandered away from her house and into a drainage ditch with water, Police Chief Chris Jenkins recalled in illustrating cases that would benefit from drone use.

“Helping with search and rescue is the main thing,” he said, responding to a question from Councilman Russell about the drones being used for surveillance, as included in the PD report.

“Would it be used for reconnaissance or investigations?” Russell asked.

Jenkins responded that drone implementation is not new to law enforcement and that state law governs the use of the flying camera technology.

“We will not invade people’s privacy,” the police chief said, “outside what is in the Virginia Code.” He added Culpeper is a growing community and the drones would allow quick response, helping lost people to be found before something bad happens to them. Russell said he would need to read state law before deciding on the matter.

Virginia Code on drones & town surveillance

According to Code of Virginia 19.2-60.1, law enforcement can use drones when an Amber Alert, Senior Alert or Blue Alert is activated, to alleviate immediate danger to any person, to survey vehicle crash scenes or for VDOT training, or if a person with legal authority consents to a warrantless search. Police can use drones for assessment of damage, traffic, flood stage and wildfire, according to the state code.

State Code prohibits the use of weaponized drones by state or local governments except at NASA’s flight facility at Wallops Island on the Eastern Shore. The code does not appear to address police use of drones for surveillance.

Culpeper Police, in its report, stated it could use the drones in active shooter situations to gain a bird’s eye view and for surveillance, offering “a new point of view for scouting areas that police officers may otherwise have no favorable position to conduct a standards surveillance operation without being spotted.” The report continued that in such situations a drone would provide the best way “to get a detailed view of the areas without compromising officer safety.”

The department also plans to use the drones, if approved, for community relations, at school programs and special events in addition to assisting at fire scenes, if needed, and for public works functions. The $55,000 budget item includes the drones, thermal and high resolution long range zoom cameras, batteries, lighting and training for licensing through the Federal Aviation Administration, according to the PD report.

Waiting for a helicopter for survey in an emergency situation can be a lengthy process, Jenkins told council. As for drone technology, “The pictures you will see in real time – is unbelievable,” the police chief said.

Town growth driving budget

Other FY20 budget highlights and proposed costs include: $100,000 to hire an IT security engineer to protect town networks from hacking; 3 percent rate increases to water and sewer rates and 1 percent higher for town power; 4 percent merit raise for town employees worth $338,275; $305,000 worth of new vehicles and $109,652 to install a “fiber backbone” for connecting town facilities with high speed fiber cable, replacing an aged radio system for communication serving an ever-growing town.

The most direct measure of new town residents is certificates of occupancy issued when someone moves into a new home with the standard measure being 2.49 people per house, according to Hively’s budget presentation he said was, per usual, a conservative view of town revenues. In FY18, there were 60 occupancy certificates issued in town and another 99 are expected by the end of FY19 on June 30.

New building has seen a distinct downturn since the peak in 2005, the town manager stated, but the completion of houses continues in approved subdivisions around town even as it nears full buildout. Hively estimated 100 occupancy certificates in FY20 and then a potential return to “significantly lower levels” until new housing developments arise. The proposed FY20 general fund town budget is $868,935 more than the current year budget.

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