LUMBERTON — Robeson County commissioners say there is no way that they will consider raising property taxes to pay for the construction of a new county jail or a technology high school.
Although they have no other plans for funding the proposed construction projects, five commissioners — Tom Taylor, Hubert Sealey, Jerry Stephens, David Edge and Lance Herndon — all told The Robesonian that a property tax increase is nowhere in sight. Commissioners Noah Woods, Raymond Cummings and Roger Oxendine did not return a reporter’s phone calls.
On Wednesday, the last day for any local bills to be filed for consideration during the state General Assembly’s short session, state Sen. Michael Walters, a Democrat from Proctorville, could not gain support from the leadership in the Republican-controlled Senate for a bill that would give Robeson County residents the chance to vote on a 1-cent increase in the sales tax during a referendum.According to Walters, Senate Republicans “just don’t favor taxes.”
The commissioners in January adopted a resolution asking the General Assembly for permission to hold a referendum to allow local residents to decide if they want a 1-cent increase in the sales tax to cover the two construction projects. The county’s current sales tax is 7 percent — 6.75 percent levied by the state and the remaining quarter cent having been approved by voters in a referendum in 2010. It it were to go to 8 percent, it would be the highest in the state.
“I think the only fair tax is a sales tax,” Taylor said. “I think the legislators should have approved the referendum and allowed the people to vote on the issue.”
Stephens said he is “not losing any sleep” over the bill not getting a hearing in the General Assembly during its short session.
“I don’t see there being an emergency in either the construction of a new jail or the construction of a new school,” he said. “I’m not disappointed in the decision because we knew from the beginning that with the current atmosphere in Raleigh it was a slim chance that even if the bill made it into the General Assembly that it would be approved.”
Many GOP members in both the Senate and House have signed a pledge saying they will oppose any tax increase.
Ricky Harris, the county’s manager, said Thursday that the additional sales tax is “really needed” if there is any chance that the jail and new school can become reality.
“I don’t know what we will do now. We really need this money. We have no Plan B,” Harris said. “I don’t see any other monies available … it’s dead at this time.”
“I think the manager summed it up when he said the issue is dead,” Herndon said. “I can’t really say I’m disappointed because I didn’t think it would go anywhere with the makeup of the General Assembly.”
Herndon said that he has had little feedback from his constituents concerning the possibility of a referendum on increasing the sales tax by 1 cent.
“But most people I’ve heard from don’t like the idea of a new jail being built,” he said.
Sealey said that he was “hoping” that the bill would pass in the General Assembly so that Robesonians would have the chance to voice their opinion.”
“Under no circumstances will I support an increase in our property tax,” he said. “I think we have to go back and look at our budget for things we can cut. I don’t know of any other place right now that we could get the money for these projects.”
Edge said the state has not andated that a new jail be constructed.
“After looking into it myself, I don’t think we need a new jail and I don’t think we need a new school at this time,” he said.
Both Walters, and state Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Scotland County whose district includes parts of Robeson, said that the bill will most likely have to wait until the General Assembly meets for its long session beginning in January. Pierce said he will definitely try to move the bill in the House during the long session.
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.