04/22/08 — Republican alleges sales tax push

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Republican alleges sales tax push

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on April 22, 2008 1:46 PM

A Wayne County resident has filed a formal complaint about what he considers to be the county Board of Commissioners' illegal promotion of the May 6 quarter-cent sales tax referendum.

County officials, however, maintain that their brochures and radio advertisements have not been advocating for the additional revenue, but rather have been for educational purposes only.

"We're not advocating," County Manager Lee Smith said. "What we're basically saying is, 'Here's what it is. You decide.'

"I think we've done what's appropriate. Before we ever got into this sales tax issue, we asked the county attorney about what we could do and not do, and I think we're doing what's right and what's legal. The county commissioners are not advocating for the sales tax. The commissioners are saying, "These are our options, which would you prefer?'"

But Ed Wharton of Golds-boro disagrees.

"It's clear from the brochure and the script of the radio advertisements that the intent is to promote the passage of the tax referendum...," he wrote in his complaint. "These messages are full of the use of current effective marketing and selling techniques used to sell, persuade or influence others to believe, accept or buy your service, product or point of view.

"There should be no doubt that these messages have the main purpose of obtaining support for the quarter-cent sales tax."

At the core of his complaint is his opinion that the county is using scare tactics to promote the use of the sales tax for a new countywide communications system.

"It is clear from the script of the radio advertisements that the intent is to promote the passage of the tax referendum by the use of emotions as fear...," he wrote.

Again, though, Smith doesn't believe the commissioners crossed that line.

"It's a real issue," he said. "This is a life or death situation. Our folks are telling us that we've got to fix this system."

The problem, though, Wharton explained in his complaint -- filed with the Wayne County Board of Elections office -- is that the commissioners did not register a "referendum committee" to advocate for the sales tax.

"We're seeing taxpayer dollars being spent to advocate for more taxes, and we feel that's a violation," Wharton said. "And we're going to find out."

The complaint, though, will not be handled by the county elections board -- a point that Wharton disagrees with.

Rather, said county Board of Elections Director Vickie Reed, the complaint has been sent on to the state Board of Elections Campaign Finance Office.

"They will take it from here," she said.

And once it's received, said Amy Strange, state campaign finance complaint specialist, it will be investigated.

Wharton's other option, if he disagrees with the way the county has spoken on the referendum, would be to file a lawsuit alleging the misuse of taxpayer funds.

Two such precedents already exist -- though neither offers a clear-cut answer.

In one, Bardolph v. Arnold (1993 in Guilford County), the N.C. Court of Appeals found that governments could spend taxpayer dollars to educate residents about a referendum.

But in another, Dollar v. Town of Cary (2002), the appellate court held that governments cannot spend tax monies advocating for a referendum.

"North Carolina case law -- the law that has been decided by the appellate court -- has allowed governments to spend tax dollars to 'educate' the people voting on a matter as to the effects of the matter passing or not passing," said Don Wright, general counsel for the state Board of Elections. "The same court has also decided against the use of tax dollars to advocate for the passage or defeat of such matters."

No election officials would speak on the effect -- if any -- that Wharton's complaint might have on the election.

For his part, Wharton is asking that all the advertising be recalled, that any public funds spent on advertising be reimbursed and that a $10,000 penalty be levied and made payable to Wayne County Public Schools.

He explained that he chose to file the complaint with the elections board and not the courts because he felt like it was "the right way to go."