A signed county resolution seeking legislative approval for a 1/4-cent sales tax hike to be placed on the November ballot is just a “first step” in the process, county commissioners said.
That resolution, approved in a 3-2 vote Tuesday, has been sent to Raleigh just ahead of Wednesday’s final deadline for any potential legislation to be submitted for consideration as part of the N.C. General Assembly’s short session.
“This is the first step and there is now work to be done in gaining support for it in Raleigh and then come back and gain support at home,” stressed board chairman Jefferson Strickland. “So the work has just begun. We got the easy part over with (Tuesday). I feel like we’re ready for the occasion and will rise to the occasion should we have that opportunity to do so, and we’ll let the people speak.”
The resolution approved Tuesday stated that empowering the county to levy an additional 1/4-cent local option sales tax would provide the additional revenues for critical needs, while “equitably spreading the tax burden” among the populous. The measure would serve to “broaden our revenue sources and reduce our dependence on ad valorem property taxes as the principal source of revenue,” the resolution further stated.
Tuesday’s vote reversed the board’s May 16 split vote against pursuing legislative approval for a 1/4-cent sales tax hike. Switching his vote, Commissioner Jarvis McLamb made a motion to move forward with the resolution to put the sales tax option to a public vote.
Commissioner Billy Lockamy and Strickland voted with McLamb, while Commissioners Albert Kirby and Harry Parker again voted against. McLamb, who was adamant in his opposition to another tax on residents during the May 16 session, said he did not fully understand that citizens themselves would be making the decision.
Lockamy lauded the board’s decision, saying it was right to put it to the public and that he felt legislators would back the county.
“After about five and a half years, going on six years, as a commissioner, this is the first time I saw unity with our (House) representatives and senator willing — not saying they haven’t helped us in the past, because they have — to help us anyway they could,” Lockamy said. “They stepped forward and were willing to do all they could to help us. I’m grateful for them and now we’ll put the ball in their court and we’ll see what happens.”
The vote was not an easy one, but ultimately Sampson’s citizens will have the final say. Should the sales tax option be approved, its enactment will be up to the Board of Commissioners, Lockamy said, which may or may not go through with it.
“It’s a hard decision,” he remarked. “We’re facing a budget coming up and this is just an ace in the hand, or a cushion, that maybe we can use if we need it. The people have spoken … they definitely have to me.I appreciate you calling a special meeting for this.”
“It tugged at my heart, wanting to do the right thing,” Strickland replied.
County attorney Joel Starling was consulted about the prospect of holding a second special-called meeting on the same topic. He drafted a page-long memorandum that essentially told commissioners that he was unaware, after reviewing the matter, of any “legal impediment” to the board considering the matter anew at a subsequent meeting despite the May 16 ruling.
At Tuesday’s session, Lockamy reiterated his stance that sales tax was “the fairest of all.” Kirby said it was simply unfair to raise taxes when it was the duty of commissioners to make tough budget decisions toward warding off any tax increases.
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. 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, the additional 1/4-cent sales tax would not take effect until April 2015.
The county’s current tax rate stands at 7 cents. The referendum, if voted in, would take that to 7.25 percent, the highest in the state. Sampson would have the “dubious distinction” of having the highest sales tax of North Carolina’s 100 counties, Kirby pointed out.
“If you believe that this is a matter of just letting the voter decide, then you believe in fairy tales. The purpose here is to generate $900,000,” Kirby said bluntly. “I don’t believe anyone sitting on this board today can honestly say their phone has been ringing off the hook with voters demanding that the commissioners raise their taxes. If that was the case, then I could understand the need for an emergency meeting to give them what they want. But no one is beating down our doors and screaming for a tax hike.
“So this move is a way for commissioners to vote for a tax increase by hiding behind the guise that it was the taxpayer who wanted to raise his or her taxes,” Kirby concluded.
But it won’t be their fellow taxpayers they blame when their bill is higher at the register. It will be the commissioners, Kirby attested.
Lockamy said he indeed had received “numerous calls” from residents in favor of the sales tax hike. One county employee spoke in favor of the measure at the tail end of Tuesday’s short meeting.
“We can’t keep taking it away from the departments to balance the budget. This is a way to help balance the budget,” said Veterans Service officer Ann Knowles. “For those who utilize services that are not citizens, that get our services … it does help equal the playing ground.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121. Follow us on twitter @SampsonInd.