Following a heated debate, the Sampson County Board of Commissioners in a split vote opted against seeking legislative approval for a referendum to be placed on November’s ballot for a 1/4-cent sales tax increase.
The decision came during a Friday special-called board session, with an imminent deadline to pursue such legislation. The board ultimately split 3-2 and no such measure will be put to voters.
“The time is now to bring this out, discuss it and see which way this board wants to go,” said board chairman Jefferson Strickland, introducing the topic to the board. He noted that lawmakers were now proposing legislation in the abbreviated N.C. General Assembly session. “The deadline for making this decision is now.”
An additional 1/4-cent sales tax would generate just over $900,000 a year to the county, equivalent to between 2 and 2.5 cents on the property tax rate, Strickland outlined to his fellow commissioners. The county would net about $850,000 of that sum, with roughly $60,000 to be split among the municipalities.
Should it pass in November, Strickland stated, it would not go into effect until April 2015, meaning the sales tax boost would have limited effect on the 2014-15 budget but be well underway leading into the 2015-16 year.
“Our current tax rate is 7 percent,” the chairman pointed. “What we’re asking is for 7.25 percent.”
Finance officer David Clack said the 7 cent sales tax in Sampson is “as high a sales tax rate as you can have.”
“Our main source of revenue is property taxes,” said Strickland, citing a trend that is seeing more renters rather than home and property owners. “This sales tax would be for everyone.”
“This is not really a done deal,” said Commissioner Billy Lockamy. “That way I’m looking at it is we’ve sat here practically the whole year, had every department head in here and have not cut the budget one bit.”
The county board unanimously voted months back — the Legislature’s approval was not needed — to place a countywide beer and wine sales referendum on the May primary ballot. That measure was resoundingly voted down earlier this month. Lockamy said, should the Legislature give the OK, Sampson residents should have the same say over a potential sales tax hike.
“This is something we need to put back out to the citizens of the county and let them make a decision on it,” he said. “My opinion is it is the fairest tax of all, bottom line. I’m in favor of it. I don’t know what (the budget looks like) yet, but I know we were short last year. This year is going to be just as challenging as it was last year, if not worse.”
Commissioner Jarvis McLamb said it was time to stop taxing people. Lockamy agreed.
“But if they want the services, we have to have some way to receive revenue for the services,” he commented. “I feel this is the fairest of all. The ones who go to schools, receive police and sheriff protection, use the rescue squads, even if they don’t have any property at all, they’re paying their fair share.”
Following the board’s approval of a resolution seeking legislative approval, local legislators would have to introduce a bill, which would then have to make its way through the N.C. House and Senate in order to make it onto the November ballot, at which time Sampson voters would make the ultimate decision.
Requiring a general election, November would be the “most opportune time” to put such a referendum to the local populous, Strickland attested. Otherwise, the county would have to wait two more years until the next general election or shoulder “considerable cost,” at close to $30,000, to hold a special election, he noted.
“It’s a drawn-out process,” the chairman pointed out. “Three levels of approval have to take place — here, in Raleigh and then by the voters. Each one of those jobs is a big job in itself.”
That process did not make it past the first step Friday.
Lockamy said he felt avenues toward cutting the budget had been exhausted and the prospect of a sales tax should at least be offered up to Sampsonians receiving those government services in the first place.
“Whatever the decision is, the public has spoken,” Lockamy maintained, “but I think we have tried every means we can to keep from raising taxes or cutting any departments completely out.”
A further tax to make governmental ends meet should not be an option, Commissioner Albert Kirby insisted, and was not one he would endorse.
“We talked about dealing with the (budget) shortfall. We haven’t dealt with it. We haven’t done anything,” Kirby said. “I’ve always been against raising the taxes on the citizens until we’ve done all we can do. I don’t feel that we have. So I’m not in the mood of making a suggestion to raise the taxes of the taxpayers of Sampson County.”
Commissioner Harry Parker echoed those remarks.
“I feel there is more we can do to find waste in the county,” he implored. “Until I’m satisfied that we have done all we can to do that, I’m at odds with this decision to tax the citizens of Sampson County.”
Lockamy said it was simply a matter of offering the option and letting citizens make up their mind.
“That’s true, but we’d have to vote for actually putting it (on the ballot),” Kirby replied. He pointed to the board’s decision to fund a pay study for approximately $50,000, a wasteful practice in his estimation, only to turn around and ask for a sales tax increase. “It’s tax and spend personified. It’s an inconsistent message. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
The county board was not raising taxes, Lockamy maintained. He detailed the obstacles that would have to be surmounted to get the measure on the ballot. Even if it reached the point where citizens voted for the sales tax, then the board would still have the option as to whether it would be levied or not.
“You can make that vote, but I’m not going to even make the vote to put it on the ballot to raise their taxes,” Kirby stated.
“And I think you’re making the biggest mistake you’ve ever made too, and that’s my opinion,” Lockamy interjected.
“It’s my opinion you’re making the biggest mistake talking about even putting something on the books to raise the taxes,” Kirby shot back.
Lockamy pointed to the state of the county, highlighted by a large number of struggling farmers. More property tax would be a burden they could not shoulder, leaving sales tax as the best option to generate revenue to keep government running.
“I’d rather pay a little bit of sales taxes … and I feel like the general public feels the same way, and I want to give them the opportunity to make that decision,” Lockamy stated. “It would make me feel better if it had the opportunity for the citizens of Sampson County to give their opinion on it.”
Kirby said an argument could be made to make the situation “sound real sweet.”
“The bottom line is still the bottom line,” he remarked. “You’re spending too much and you’re taxing too much.”
“You’re correct,” said McLamb. “It’s a tax increase.”
Lockamy said he has sat in the county’s board room for weeks and months and seen no progress in making budget cuts. More revenue is needed, and the time to go down that path again was in November.
“We’ve got an opportunity to let the public speak, for or against,” said Lockamy. “We’re not putting taxes on them. We’re putting it as a referendum and letting the people vote on it.”
Stepping aside from the referendum talk, Strickland offered a challenge to the board with the proposed budget nearing.
“If you believe there is waste in government, that we’re wasting money, put it on paper,” Strickland said, raising his voice. “Identify it, go through that budget, and say where we’re wasting. Last year, I brought paper after paper (of cuts) … I wouldn’t say the word ‘waste,’ but places where money could be better spent.”
Kirby reiterated his opposition to the $50,000 study, which he and Parker voted against. McLamb said he has offered drastic budget cuts in the past and Kirby said he has been called “a rotten apple” for suggesting there was waste.
“And we’re here today talking about raising taxes,” Kirby stated. “I’m not going to ever vote for something that could result in a tax increase as long as I think there is waste in our government.”
Strickland called the sales tax hike “an alternative to a property tax increase,” which the county could very well be facing.
Following little more than a half an hour, a motion was made by Lockamy to seek legislative approval for the 1/4-cent sales tax referendum, seconded by Strickland. No one else was in favor. Kirby, Parker and McLamb opposed, killing the motion 3-2.
It would not be long before commissioners regret the decision, Lockamy said.
“You wait until we get through this budget this year,” he remarked. “You’ll wish many times you had done it.”
“I know it’s going to be tough this year,” McLamb responded. “It’s been tough every year.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.