11/21/07 — Wayne officials leaning towards sales tax

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Wayne officials leaning towards sales tax

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 21, 2007 1:46 PM

A decision is likely to be at least a month away, but the Wayne County Board of Commissioners began discussing Tuesday when it should put a quarter-cent local sales tax referendum before county voters.

The discussion, which was postponed from earlier this month, was the board's first formal look at the issue, even though previously all the members agreed they would prefer to focus on the sales tax, rather than the 0.4 percent land transfer tax -- the other option offered by the state General Assembly as part of this year's Medicaid relief package.

Originally, the commissioners had sought permission to levy a one-cent sales tax without it being put to a vote of the people, but county legislators were unwilling to support such a proposal.

Under the Medicaid relief plan, however, county voters must give their permission before either tax can be levied.

Counties that tried during the recent election, though, had mixed results.

Of the 16 counties offering the sales tax option, five -- Catawba, Martin, Pitt, Sampson and Surry counties -- saw it approved. The 16 counties with the land transfer tax on the ballot, on the other hand, all saw it defeated.

"I don't think there was any surprise about what the land transfer tax did across the state," county Manager Lee Smith said. "The people clearly spoke. It's just bad business."

The sales tax results, though, he continued, were a bit more promising.

"The sales tax was more of a mixed bag. It seemed like people were looking at what the money was for," Smith said.

And, he added, those counties that failed, are likely to try again.

In Wayne County, the commissioners have indicated they would like to see the money used for school construction and possibly other infrastructure needs.

According to the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, the sales tax is likely to bring in about $2.57 million, while the land transfer tax is likely to provide only $1.42 million.

"It don't matter if it's $5 million, we aren't going to do the land transfer tax," Commissioner Jack Best said.

To them, the commissioners explained, the land transfer tax is just another property tax.

"The sales tax is a fair tax," Commissioner Atlas Price said. "Everybody pays. I've talked to a lot of people about this, and if people are informed and understand the sales tax, they'll vote for it.

"A sales tax is fair. (Everyone) would be sharing in our local government, where as now, they're not so much."

But, concerned about how voter turnout may affect it, when the money might be needed and whether it's wise to be asking for a referendum in the middle of the county's budget process, the commissioners stopped short of actually deciding when to place it on the ballot.

If the sales tax is approved in May, county finance officer Pam Holt explained that the tax would not actually go into effect until October, and that no revenues would be collected until December.

If it's not approved until November, that timeline increases.

It is, Smith said, a matter of when the commissioners want to start paying for projects like the school's facility plan.

"I don't see (the need for) it so much for 2008, but for 2009 and 2010, you will," he said, urging a decision by January at the latest. "It's a matter of strategy. We don't need to talk about this until next year, but there are certain deadlines."