04/20/08 — Wayne Republicans oppose sales tax addition

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Wayne Republicans oppose sales tax addition

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 20, 2008 2:01 AM

The Wayne County Republican Party is coming out today against the quarter-cent sales tax increase that residents will have the opportunity to vote on during the May 6 primary.

Planning an all-out media blitz with newspaper and radio advertisements and outdoor signs, county party chairman Mark Corbett explained the party is opposed to the hike for two reasons.

"We passed an increase in the 911 fee back in 2005, and they did that for the same purpose they're saying they need this for. And, our county has $23 million in unrestricted reserve (according to the think tank, the John Locke Foundation) -- 24 to 25 percent of the general fund.

"The state only requires 8 percent. We've got three times in reserve what we need. Why can't we use that?"

But he emphasized that the Republican Party is not opposed to what the county wants to use the money for -- a new countywide communications system -- just how county officials plan to pay for it.

The system is expected to cost between $8 and $8.5 million to improve -- including the purchase and installation of radios for all of the emergency service, fire department and law enforcement agencies in the county (including municipal), as well as potential add-ons for maintenance and general service workers, schools and Red Cross emergency shelters.

"We are not in any way opposed to improving the communications system and making that the way it needs to be," Corbett said.

And, he added, the GOP is not even opposed to the idea of the sales tax itself.

"I agree that if I had my choice between a property tax and a sales tax, I'd prefer a sales tax. But our contention is that this is not absolutely necessary," he said. "Some counties have agreed to make it revenue neutral. Our county hasn't made any such commitment. And, once it's approved, they don't even have to use the money for any specific purpose."

And so, he said, the party's position is that it is simply just another unnecessary tax increase.

"Why raise taxes when we have the money to pay for it with?" Corbett asked. "The county has more than adequate cash on hand to handle this upgrade without raising taxes."

But the county is using the approximately $1.5 million that was collected between November 2005, when the 911 surcharge was raised from 85 cents to $1.85, and January 2008, to build two communications towers in Mount Olive and Grantham, after using grant funds to build an earlier one in Goldsboro.

Those 911 surcharge funds are no longer available for communications equipment, however, after the state captured them in January and reduced the rate to 70 cents.

And as for the county's $29.5 million fund balance -- $13.8 million in unreserved funds, according to finance officer Pam Holt -- officials have long explained that building such reserves has been necessary to reach a point of being able to comfortably borrow money for school construction and other capital needs.

"I will not apologize for the fund balance," County Manager Lee Smith said at the recent State of the Community presentation -- a phrase he has since repeated. "It's probably the best thing we've ever done because now we're prepared (for future expenses and unexpected emergencies)."

But for Corbett and the rest of the Wayne County Repub-lican Party, the goal is really just to let people know that there are other options for paying for this communications system -- especially in light of what they see as "scare tactic" advertising by the county.

"They make it sound like the communications system in the county is so bad that they're basically using tin cans and string," Corbett said. "And, yes, they do need to improve their system, but it's not as dire as they're making it out to be.

"We just want to shine a light on this issue. I think what will happen now is there will be a big public discussion of this thing, and that's what we really want. If we have all the facts out and if a well-informed public makes a well-informed decision in favor of the sales tax, then OK."