RALEIGH — Robeson County commissioners will have to rethink their plans on how to pay for the construction of a new jail and perhaps a technology high school.
“I really can’t tell you what we will do now,” County Manager Ricky Harris said this morning. “I don’t see any other monies available. As far as I can tell, it’s dead at this time.”
State Sen. Michael Walters on Wednesday did not file a bill in the Republican-controlled Senate that if approved would give Robeson County residents the chance to vote on a proposed 1-cent increase in the sales tax to fund construction of a new jail and “school construction.” Wednesday was the General Assembly’s deadline for any local bills to be filed for consideration during the General Assembly’s short session.
“I didn’t file the bill because I didn’t get the support from the (Senate) leadership,” said Walters, a Democrat from Proctorville. “They just don’t favor taxes.”
The county commissioners in early January passed a resolution asking the General Assembly for permission to hold 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. The county’s current sales tax is 7 percent.
Both the state Senate and House are 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 will oppose any tax increase.
“I said the whole time that this would be difficult,” Walters said. “I’m not surprised at the outcome.”
Walters said that it is still possible that the county’s bill could be attached and considered with another local bill during the General Assembly’s short session.
“Something may come up, but at this time I don’t see it happening in the Senate,” Walters said. “I think it will be considered in the long session (that begins in January) after the November elections. This is more of a long session issue.”
Walters will not be in the Senate when the General Assembly convenes early next year. He announced in January that he would not be seeking re-election for his District 13 seat when his term ends at the end of this year.
Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Scotland County whose House district includes Robeson, said Wednesday that he is looking for a local House bill that both Robeson County’s bill and a similar bill from the town of Fairmont requesting a referendum on a 1-cent sales tax increase can be attached.
“We know it is a long shot, but we are not giving up,” Pierce said.
According to Pierce, if the county bill is not heard during the short session, it will be filed in the House during the General Assembly’s long session.
“We will have the bill ready to submit in January,” he said.
At least one commissioner isn’t concerned that the bill never made it to the Senate floor.
“I’m not really disappointed,” said Commissioner David Edge, the lone Republican on the county’s eight-member board. “After looking into it for myself, I don’t think we need a new jail and I don’t think we need a new school at this time.
“Yes, we need more space (at the jail), but we are looking at more pre-trial release to address that issue, ” he said.
Robeson County officials estimate that the 1-cent tax hike would generate about $5.5 million a year for the county. The total cost of a new jail and technology high school has been projected to be about $84 million.
Both Kellie Blue, the county’s finance director, and Harris have said on numerous occasions that other than the sales tax the only way 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 among the highest property tax rates in North Carolina.
The county commissioners have said they will not even consider raising property taxes.