01/13/08 — Commission wants help with sales tax referendum

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Commission wants help with sales tax referendum

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 13, 2008 2:02 AM

KENANSVILLE -- With the May primaries less than four months away, the Duplin County Board of Commissioners is eager to begin the process of explaining why the county is putting a referendum on the ballot asking residents to make a decision on a local quarter-cent sales tax.

But, in their meeting Monday, the commissioners said once again that they would not be able to do it alone.

Listening to the recommendations of the county's community facilities committee -- an active group of county officials and residents formed during the 2002 strategic planning process -- they again noted the need for involvement by the public school system.

"The board of education, we feel, should take the lead in this process," said County Manager Mike Aldridge, one of the committee members. "The board of education and the James Sprunt (Community College) Board of Trustees should publicly endorse this tax."

After all, he explained, they will be primary beneficiaries, and as such, with the help of the commission, should be the ones educating the rest of the county -- coordinating with other interested groups, printing and distributing information and talking to various community groups.

Also important, Aldridge continued, will be to explain how much of a property tax increase -- paid by only a few people -- could be offset by the sales tax, which is paid by everybody.

He estimated it to be about three-cents-per-$100-value worth, as the N.C. Association of County Commissioners is projecting the sales tax to generate approximately $822,000 in revenue.

But right now, he continued, the most important step is for the school board to come up with a facilities plan that not only is acceptable to whole county, but also can be easily explained and illustrated.

"We need something people can easily process," Aldridge said.

"It needs to be simple and something everyone can look at and understand," Com-missioner Reginald Wells added. "When you look at their (current) facilities plan as is, it's very confusing."

But the commission has already rejected that plan, which included the building of a new high school to consolidate the students at James Kenan High School and students at East Duplin from the B.F. Grady area; the replacement of E.E. Smith and Warsaw middle schools with a consolidated middle school at the former James Kenan High School; the construction of a new elementary school in the B.F. Grady area and the renovation of Charity Middle School.

That November vote was 4-2, with Wells and Commissioner L.S. Guy dissenting.

Guy explained that he voted for the plan because it was supposed to have been formed based on the recommendations of a school board-appointed facility committee.

"I feel if it meets the consensus of the community ... I simply respect that kind of effort," he said.

And on Monday, he asked the rest of the board to explain their opposition so that the school board could take those concerns into consideration.

"The reason I was opposed to the facility plan was because that the vast majority of the people who came to see me and the phone calls I got," Commissioner David Fussell said. "The public did not like it."

Commissioner Zettie Williams explained that she voted against the plan because it did not provide any additional help for the schools in the northern end of the county, particularly North Duplin High, which was left out of the last major facility work.

Commissioner Cary Turner and Chairman Harold Raynor stood against it for much the same reason as Fussell.

"My primary reason for voting against it was because when I was campaigning, I promised that whatever the majority of the people (in the B.F. Grady area) wanted, that's the way I would vote," Turner said.

Among the concerns are the high school consolidation's effect on test scores and bus schedules, and the effect of combining competing gangs.

"There just needs to be more thought put into the plan," Turner said.

But it needs to be done quickly.

"Time is of the essence," Wells said. "It's going to be May before we know it, and you can't just show up May 7 and expect it to pass. It's about selling a product."

The school board is expected to discuss facility issues at its meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday.