11/08/07 — Commissioners eye tax proposal for 2008

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Commissioners eye tax proposal for 2008

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 8, 2007 1:46 PM

For 21 of the 26 counties with a local option tax referendum on their ballots Tuesday, the rallying cry seemed to be 'no new taxes,' as voters repeatedly rejected both new revenue options offered to them.

And, while none Wayne County's commissioners were surprised at the results, they still believe that with the right plan, theirs will be different.

"I wasn't a bit surprised to see the results of the sales and land transfer taxes," Commissioner Efton Sager said. "But I honestly feel that if we put the sales tax in front of the voters in Wayne County, they'll vote for it because they know that eventually the property tax is going to have to go up or the sales tax can be used to cover that increase."

Putting the sales tax on the ballot, however, is a decision that has yet to be officially made.

On the table are the 0.4 percent land transfer tax and the quarter-cent sales tax -- the result of the state General Assembly's Medicaid relief package.

The commissioners can decide to put one or both to a public referendum, but they can only choose one to enact.

Of course, the voters must first give their approval. And for the counties that decided to rush their referendums onto Tuesday's ballots, gaining that approval was a problem.

Faced with the chance to vote on a 0.4 percent land transfer tax, voters in Brunswick, Chatham, Davie, Graham, Gates, Harnett, Henderson, Hoke, Johnston, Macon, Moore, Pender, Rutherford, Swain, Union and Washington counties all voted it down.

Voters in Columbus, Cumberland, Davie, Graham, Greene, Harnett, Hertford, Johnston, Lenoir, Robeson, Rutherford counties also voted against the quarter-cent sales tax option.

Approving the local option sales tax were Catawba, Martin, Pitt, Sampson and counties.

Those counties where the initiatives failed, though, can try again next year.

Several other counties, including Wayne, also are expected to put the options to a vote sometime during 2008.

Wayne County Commission Chairman John Bell said he expects the board to ask only for the sales tax, likely during the May primary.

"I don't think we're even going to consider the land transfer tax. We think that it's just another property tax," he said.

The sales tax, the other commissioners agreed, is simply the more fair option. It also appears as though it will offer more revenue -- $2.57 million compared to $1.42 million with the land transfer tax, according to estimates from the N.C. Association of County Commissioners.

"With the sales tax, everybody pays," Commissioner Bud Gray said. "With the property tax, it's just people with property paying, but everybody enjoys it.

"I'd rather have a sales tax. The property tax is at about all people can afford."

The commissioners also agreed, though, that the key to getting the sales tax approved will be explaining what the resulting revenue will be used for -- schools and perhaps other county infrastructure needs.

"It's hard for people to raise their own taxes," Bell said. "There needs to be a selling point. People don't like to raise taxes just because you have the authority to do so."

But if they can explain their plan to voters, the commissioners said they feel pretty good about their chances.

"I think if they know it's going for schools and infrastructure, they'll support it," Gray said.