Sunday column: Sales tax education

The key to being a good journalist is you must know a little bit about everything (rather than a lot about one thing).
Over the past eight years, I’ve written stories on a wide range of topics — Medicaid, crawfish, religion, racism, politics, scandals, high school basketball … the list goes on. And note, I’m not a doctor, a fisherman, a preacher, an activist, a senator, a criminal or a coach.
But I learned enough about all of these to be able to write something that helped others who know nothing about these topics understand them.
But one thing I’ve just never really seemed to grasp is our tax system. Sales taxes, property taxes, business privilege taxes … I know of them, sure, but ask me to sit down and write you a thesis on any of them, and I’ll throw my hands in the air and officially give up.
That said, I’m really trying to understand — just like many of you — the .25-cent sales tax that we’ll be voting on here in Lee County during the May 6 primary. This is what I know (please correct me if I’m wrong) — we’re going to vote on whether or not we mind spending an extra penny for every four dollars we spend on retail purchases.
I also know that our current Lee County Board of Commissioners say the tax — if passed — will generate more than $1.5 million annually, allowing them to fund about $36 million in capital requests over the next five years. In other words, $36 million in improvements, upkeep and other new things.
I also know that “capital improvements” is the only thing our commissioners have told us the tax will fund. This is according to a brochure that’s made the rounds throughout Lee County recently.
It doesn’t tell us what exactly will be funded, because, by law, the commissioners cannot make promises about future spending. So instead of interaction with voters on what they’re potentially approving, they’re only offering a worst-case scenario by saying if the sales tax doesn’t pass, property taxes will go up.
Are you with me?
Long story short, approve a sales tax that you’re not really sure about or get levied with more property taxes.
I want to see our schools (both Lee County High and the community college) get much-needed renovations and new buildings. I really do. I’m also happy that this tax is going before voters, because in a perfect world, all taxes would go before voters.
But I’m not liking the odds that this tax will pass, because what many of you don’t know is 32 counties in North Carolina presented a sales tax option before voters during last November’s election, and of those 32 referendums, only five passed.
The odds aren’t looking good, are they?
So how did these five counties pass a sales tax? Communication that went beyond brochures (in all fairness, the commissioners recently agreed to work with parents who have concerns about Lee County High School, but it’s a group that makes up a very small percentage of all local voters).
In Catawba County, commissioners worked with a citizens group, Catawba County Citizens for Tax Fairness, and worked to raise public awareness about the serious needs of the county, and, according to the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners, explained “how the money would be used and what are the alternatives for generating the necessary revenue (i.e. higher property taxes).”
Catawba’s needs — water and sewer lines, a business park, school funding, courthouse expansion and other smaller needs. Clearly defined, clearly communicated. Notice, no promises.
In Pitt County, the commissioners reached out to the local school board and community college board and raised more than $13,000 through a citizens group to purchase media ads, get yard signs and even create a Web site.
Clear communication. The tax passed.
And Sampson County commissioners bucked the “law” and “put out the word that we needed to build schools … build a jail, and we had other facilities that were going to be under construction,” said County Manager Scott Sauer.
It joined Catawba, Pitt, Surry and Martin counties in getting the tax passed.
The Herald has received a little criticism recently for its support of renovations at Lee County High School and for a recent editorial saying the commissioners’ intentions needed to be more clearly defined.
We’ve never come out in support or against this sales tax, however, because we would like to learn more about what the commissioners’ capital priorities are.
But we also understand — as it’s been clear from letters to the editor we’ve published this week — that many of our voters won’t approve the tax unless it’s made clear that schools will be helped. No promises needed … just some kind of notion that they have the schools’ best interest in mind.
Voters aren’t feeling that right now. Nor am I … and yes, I’m a voter, too.
The odds are against Lee County getting this sales tax passed, if history’s any indication. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need it.
If the commissioners want this passed, there needs to be a better line of communication with the voters.
The Herald’s willing to do its part to help this communication along, so local voters will know exactly what they’re voting on come May 6.

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One thought on “Sunday column: Sales tax education

  1. …. and on the subject of taxes, the combined city/county property taxes here in Sanford are something I’ve wondered about over the last couple years as well.

    When we moved from California, one of the things we were looking to escape was extremely high property taxes. When we looked at NC, the lower cost of living was an attractive feature. However, in the Sanford area, it seems that property taxes are quite high relatively speaking to both what we experienced in CA and as compared to some other counties here in NC.

    For example, we had a home in California that was valued at twice the value of our home here, however, our property taxes for the house here in Sanford are 80% of what we paid in San Jose.

    Now, to be fair, this isn’t a completely equitable comparison as there are two variables in play, the home’s value and the tax rate. And in San Jose, the rate was actually quite low.

    But what of course matters to every consumer(and the city/county) is the actual bottom line, and it seems odd to me that property taxes here in Sanford, which incidentally were just adjusted at the height of the housing boom, are so high.

    I haven’t done any intensive investigation, but a few months ago I did some quick Internet research and found that of 2006, Sanford’s combined property tax rate was among the highest in the state, even beating out Wake County. I have to wonder why. Is it an issue of population density? Is it the average property values across the county? Are we not using our funds efficiently? Or??

    I support taxation, and am happy to pay my fair share. I also support needed improvements for many services by the county and city(many of which I champion, such as parks), and we no doubt need revenue to implement and support those services.

    But when my property tax bill increased so dramatically this last year(and was already high), and now is just within what I paid two years ago for house costing twice as much… I have to wonder why it is so high.

    I think this is an investigative opportunity, and an opportunity for the county and city to explain why and maybe even reduce them given today’s economic challenges, especially in housing.

    Al

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