02/03/08 — County leaders want educators to take the lead on tax hike option

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County leaders want educators to take the lead on tax hike option

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on February 3, 2008 2:13 AM

The Duplin County Board of Commissioners made the choice clear last week for the county Board of Education and the James Sprunt Community College Board of Directors -- either meet to discuss ways to sell residents on the upcoming quarter-cent sales tax referendum or forget about the new revenue stream until at least November.

So, with that in mind, the three sides sat down Wednesday to discuss the need for the money and how it might be spent.

And while a fair amount of disagreement still seems to exist, the groups are moving forward with the issue on the May primary ballot.

"There is still some discussion that has to be done," Commissioner David Fussell said.

The disagreement seems to be stemming from two points of contention -- who takes the lead on promoting the tax and how the money will be spent.

Fussell said he believes that because the money will be earmarked for education, the school board and the community college ought to take most of the responsibility for it.

Commissioner Reginald Wells, however, thinks it needs to be a joint effort.

"I think we all need to work together," he said. "It's not about a particular community. It's about all the people in Duplin County."

That, however, strikes to the other issue at the heart of this debate -- the public school facilities plan, which while still the official plan, has been rejected by the commissioners and is under debate by the school board.

For that reason, officials are divided on how to proceed.

Some believe that a plan needs to be in place to gain enough votes for the sales tax to pass. Some believe the plan needs to be changed for the sales tax to pass. And some believe that as long as the basic need for the funding is explained, the support will be there.

"The debate is between, do we tell people exactly what we will do with the money or do we ask that they trust us," Fussell said.

School board member Jennings Outlaw -- the only one to openly oppose the current plan -- said he believes there has to be a new plan put forward.

The problem with the current plan or even no plan, he explained, is that the inclusion or possible inclusion of the North Duplin and B.F. Grady communities make those residents unlikely to support anything that leaves their schools vulnerable.

"They would hesitate to vote for a tax that would put a school in that would change their communities," Outlaw said. "That's not what those communities want and right now it's in the plan.

"I think what we really need in place is a plan that really shows people something they can be in agreement with, and I think there are options that aren't so controversial.

"But we've got a fairly short time frame, so we've got to get moving. I think all three boards should take a positive position on it."

To help with that, County Manager Mike Aldridge agreed to put together a promotional brochure for the three groups to review and approve at a second meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday so they can "hit the streets and spread the word."

On it, he said, will likely be bullet points explaining how the sales tax will work, the fact that the estimated $800,000 in resulting revenues is equivalent to about three or four cents on the property tax rate, and the decision that the money will be spent in some fashion on public school and community college facilities.

"We have to take the politics out of this and do what's best for the kids," Wells said. "(School facilities) are a problem that's not going to go away."