04/24/07 — Commission wants to decide on tax

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Commission wants to decide on tax

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 24, 2007 1:57 PM

With their expenses looking to increase dramatically over the coming years -- about $8.3 million in Medicaid expenses in 2007-08 and school construction costs on the horizon -- Wayne County officials have asked the state General Assembly for permission to levy a one-cent local option sales tax.

But what was requested and what has been introduced are two different things.

The county commissioners asked that they be allowed to levy the one-cent sales tax.

The bill that Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, introduced, however, would base the sales tax on a public referendum.

"I didn't realize that's what they were wanting," he said. "But that would be very difficult for me to get passed."

Besides, Bell added, he doesn't support giving the county commissioners that kind of power anyway.

"I just feel like the people ought to have the chance to decide whether they want it or not," he said. "If they do, that's alright with me, but I'm not sure I'd want to push a tax bill myself that would give the commissioners that ability."

Bell also said that a local option sales tax would be unlikely to pass without the support of the entire Wayne County delegation.

So far, only Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir, has signed onto the bill, but he also said that if the commissioners really wanted it, he might introduce one to allow them the ability to make the decision themselves.

"It's a local bill. We pretty much follow the wishes of the county commissioners. They're elected just like we are. But to me, it would be better to have a referendum," Braxton said.

The third member of the delegation, Rep. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, indicated that he would support a referendum, but he has not yet signed onto the bill.

He said he would not support anything that put that decision solely in the hands of the commissioners.

The commissioners, though, feel that any county tax decisions should be made by the elected board, which already sets the ad valorem tax rate.

Wayne County's rate is 73.5 cents per $100 value. It also currently receives 2.5 cents in state sales tax, some of which is directed toward school capital outlay and debt service and some of which goes into the general fund.

If the General Assembly approves Bell's bill, County Manager Lee Smith said it would be the first sales tax actually optioned by the county.

"If we have the local sales tax, we wouldn't have to raise property taxes," county Commission Chairman John Bell said.

But even if it goes to referendum, he's hopeful it would still be approved.

"We'd put it out there and see if the people want it," he said. "It'd just be easier the other way, but if we explain it and educate the people about it and tell them what we're doing, I'm sure it'd pass.

"Especially the property owners would vote for it because it would prevent us from raising their taxes. If we have the sales tax, everybody is paying into it. I'm more in favor of sales taxes than I am the ad valorem taxes because it's more fair."

There is still hope the county won't have to leave the tax decision to a vote. Several bills in the General Assembly would give commissioners in all 100 counties the ability to levy a one-cent local sales tax.

Those, however, would restrict the money to public school capital outlay or other construction needs, such as community colleges, roads or mental health programs.

Bell's bill introduced for just Wayne County has no such stipulations -- only that the funds be used for "lawful purposes."