LUMBERTON — Getting the state General Assembly to give Robeson County the go-ahead for a referendum on a local 1-cent sales tax increase may not be easy, according to the county’s state Senate representative.
“The climate in Raleigh is different now than in the past,” Sen. Michael Walters said. “Even though this is a local bill, it will be a challenge to get it approved.”
The Robeson County Board of Commissioners last Monday unanimously passed a resolution asking the General Assembly for a referendum to allow local residents to decide if they want a 1-cent sales tax increase to pay for construction of a county jail and technology high school. There were concerns raised by some commissioners, however, that the wording on the resolution could lock in the specific projects the money generated from the tax could fund.
Walters, who is responsible for submitting the county’s request to the Senate, said that the local bill would not be introduced until after the General Assembly’s short session convenes in May. According to the senator, when a referendum could be held and what projects could be funded from any revenue generated from the additional sales tax would depend on how the bill is structured.
Walters said that all the bill will do is ask the General Assembly to allow the county to hold a referendum. The state will not be authorizing a tax increase, he said.
At the same time the bill is introduced in the Senate, a companion bill would be introduced in the House. Those legislators responsible for shepherding the bill through the House include Reps. Charles Graham, Garland Pierce, Ken Waddell and Ken Goodman.
All five members of Robeson County’s legislative delegation are Democrats. Both the state Senate and House are currently controlled by the GOP, whose members are traditionally more likely than Democrats to oppose any form of tax increase. Many have signed a pledge saying they would oppose any tax increase.
“I don’t think there will be a problem getting this approved. It’s a local bill. This is about the local community asking for a referendum,” Goodman said. “This is a non-ideological issue.”
Pierce, the senior member of the delegation, he said he was not sure if he would support the county’s request for the referendum.
“I have not yet had a chance to review all the information,” Pierce said. “I know some of the county commissioners themselves had some questions about the resolution they passed.”
The county’s current sales tax is 7.25 percent, which includes a quarter-cent sales tax hike approved by voters in August 2010. The proposal, if approved, would push that to 8.25 percent, the highest in the state.
Kellie Blue, the county’s finance director, said that the 1-cent hike would generate about $5.5 million a year for the county. The total cost of the new jail and technology school has been projected to be about $84 million.
Both Blue and County Manager Ricky Harris say that the only other way besides a sales tax increase to fund construction of the jail and school is for the county to increase property taxes. The county’s current property tax rate of 77 cents for each $100 of property value is one of the highest property tax rates in the state.
“Ad valorem taxes would have to increase by around 11 to 12 cents to compensate for the amount generated by sales tax,” Blue said.