01/23/08 — Duplin rethinking tax vote

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Duplin rethinking tax vote

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 23, 2008 2:05 PM

With less than five months to go before the May 6 primaries, the Duplin County Board of Commissioners is considering pulling the quarter-cent sales tax referendum off the ballot -- unless it can sit down and come to an agreement with the county Board of Education next week on how best to sell it to the community.

"My opinion is that if we don't meet by the end of the month, we need to pull it from the ballot," County Manager Mike Aldridge told the commissioners at Tuesday's meeting. "We actually should have already been moving with a defined plan."

The decision to put the local option quarter-cent sales tax on the primary ballot was made by the commission in August, after the state General Assembly gave counties the opportunity to do so as part of this year's Medicaid relief package.

At the time, the commissioners said they wanted to wait until May in order to give them and the school board time to sell the idea to the public.

However, it wasn't until November that the commission formally rejected the school board's facility plan -- a plan that has stood since 2005, but one that several commissioners had long opposed.

Then, it wasn't until at its meeting last week, that the school board began discussing how the plan could be altered. No decisions were made, though, as members asked Superintendent Dr. Wiley Doby to bring architect Robbie Ferris back in February to discuss population numbers and cost estimates for the proposed alternatives.

"They're moving on their own without the benefit of the two boards meeting together," Aldridge said. "The critical thing is when we can reach an agreement between the two boards about how to present this (sales tax) to the public."

The sales tax money -- slightly more than $800,000 -- is scheduled to go primarily for capital needs for the public schools and James Sprunt Community College.

But, the commissioners said Tuesday, even February is too far off to begin selling the proposal.

"We have less than 100 days till the election, and we're trying on the tail end to try and mount a strong campaign for this referendum," Commissioner Reginald Wells said. "We should have started months ago. We should have been in the driver's seat. We have to jump on this quickly if it's something we want to do."

And in fact, because there isn't agreement on the school board or the commission about the facilities plan, and because he's not even sure there's agreement on the commission about the sales tax itself, he wondered if it would be better to postpone any action anyway.

"If we're not going to all support it, we can't sell it to the community," Wells said.

Commissioner L.S. Guy somewhat agreed.

"We don't even know what the (facility) plan's going to be," he said. "They have to have a plan before we can promote a plan, and right now they don't have a plan in place that this board has approved."

But, the other commissioners agreed that if by the end of the month they can come to agreement with the school board on at least a basic outline of how the new revenues would be spent, then the sales tax would likely remain on the ballot -- even though a final decision doesn't have to be made until the end of February.

And so, despite concerns that the time might be inconvenient for some, they agreed to invite school and community college officials and board members to a meeting on Jan. 30 at 9 a.m. to discuss a plan for the sales tax.

"If we don't get a lot of participation, that'll tell us something right there," Aldridge said.