A request by the Robeson County Board of Commissioners to the General Assembly that the local government be allowed the option of asking voters to increase by a single cent the local sales tax always faced a tough slog in Raleigh, but it’s clear now it was DOA — leaving the commissioners with just one option, which comes with considerable political risk.
The deadline passed on Wednesday for the bill to be submitted in the Senate, meaning local voters won’t — at least anytime soon — be given the option of deciding through a referendum whether to raise the sales tax to 8 cents on the dollar. The General Assembly is run by Republicans, many of whom have signed a pledge not to raise taxes, and apparently that pledge extends to denying the folks from deciding for themselves if they want to dig dipper into their pockets.
County officials want the extra penny on the dollar to pay for a new jail and perhaps a technology school, although the language forwarded to the General Assembly was purposely unclear on that issue, saying instead that the revenue would be directed toward “school construction.” If you want to know the power of the penny, that single cent would have raised about $5.5 million a year, producing a revenue stream to finance the jail and perhaps the technology school, which together are expected to cost about $84 million.
If a new jail and technology school are to be built — and right now don’t bet on either rising from the ground — then increasing the sales tax makes sense as it would pull substantial dollars from Interstate 95 and spread the pain locally, not placing it all on already overtaxed property owners.
In 2010, local voters through a referendum agreed to a quarter-cent increase in the tax rate, but that was done before revelations of how richly our county commissioners pay and benefit themselves. This newspaper in 2010 encouraged support of the sales-tax bump, a position we came to regret when we too learned in 2012 of the commissioners’ willful greed.
We doubt that had the referendum been allowed by the General Assembly, that local voters would have agreed to a sales tax that would have been the highest in the state.
The commissioners, should they remain determined to build a new jail and perhaps a technology school, will have to look elsewhere for revenue, and the only viable option is adding onto an already oppressive tax rate of 77 cents for every $100 of property. Residents would not directly vote on that action, but if there were a tax increase they could voice their displeasure in the May 2014 primary, just as they did last month.
The county in the long run won’t have an option except to build a new jail, unless crime drops magically or the decision is made to let the bad guys go free to ease overcrowding.
It is hard to envision a scenario in which the technology school is constructed, but that doesn’t mean that technical skills cannot be taught. There is plenty of existing brick and mortar where that teaching could be offered and those skills acquired. A $44 million building isn’t vital to that pursuit.
A county as poor and heavily taxed as ours can’t always have new and shiny stuff.