LUMBERTON — State Rep. Charles Graham has never been optimistic that a bill giving Robeson County the go-ahead for a referendum on a local 1-cent sales tax increase would be considered during the General Assembly’s short session. Now with the close of the short session quickly approaching, Graham is certain the bill won’t go anywhere.
“At this stage it is safe to say the bill is dead,” Graham, a Lumberton Democrat, said Friday. “This is a long session issue. We were not successful in even getting the bill heard in committee during this short session.”
State Sen. Michael Walters, a Democrat from Proctorville, had prepared a local bill to introduce in the Republican controlled Senate. Senate leaders, however, had refused to let the bill move forward.
Walters was out of the country and could not be reached.
Graham said that he and the other House members of the county’s state legislative delegation — Democrats Garland Pierce, Ken Waddell and Ken Goodman — were unable to find another local bill to which they could attach the county’s referendum request. Like the Senate, the House is controlled by Republicans, who are traditionally less likely to support any tax increase.
During the long session, which convenes in January, Graham said it is much more likely that the local bill can move forward.
“There will be more time for debate,” Graham said. “There will be more time to get the bill through committee and onto the floor.”
The Robeson County Board of 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.
As written the bill requested that revenue generated by the sales tax be used to fund construction of a new county jail and for “school construction.” It did not specifically name the proposed technology high school as being constructed with tax revenue.
The county’s current sales tax is 7 percent, which includes a local quarter-cent sales tax hike approved by voters in August 2010. The additional 1-cent sales tax, if approved, would have pushed that to 8 percent, the highest in the state.
County Manager Ricky Harris said Friday that he is still unaware of any means of funding the jail and school construction, projected to cost $84 million, without the $5.5 million a year the 1-cent hike in sales tax would generate for the county.
Harris has said that the only other way to fund construction of the jail and school — based on the county’s present budget — 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.
“There is no plan B,” Harris said. “I would hope that the county will pursue the referendum in the long session, but that is a decision the commissioners have to make.”