08/19/09 — Duplin to vote on quarter-cent sales tax increase

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Duplin to vote on quarter-cent sales tax increase

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on August 19, 2009 1:46 PM

Duplin County residents will have a chance to vote next year on a quarter-cent sales tax increase that could generate about $822,000 for the county's volunteer fire departments.

County commissioners voted unanimously Monday to add the proposed increase to the May ballot after Emergency Services Director Brian Pearce addressed the board.

The county's more than 20 volunteer fire departments are having difficulty finding money for their operations, Pearce said.

Clayton Herring, chief of the Rose Hill Fire Department, warned that a day when the stations must have paid firefighters could be on the horizon.

"Volunteers just don't volunteer like they used to," he said.

Volunteer fire departments in Duplin operate on a budget of about $65,000 a year, with the county contributing about $22,000 of that amount. The departments have in the past often relied on fundraisers and donations to provide the money they need, but that is no longer feasible, Herring said.

"You make $1,000 if you're lucky, and that's not going to do it," he said.

It is also difficult for volunteer firefighters to find the time to plan and conduct fundraisers in addition to attending required training and maintaining day to day operations of the stations.

The sales tax would not require any one portion of the county's population to bear the burden of the increase, Pearce said.

"That tax is a fair tax to everybody, rich or poor, young or old, you're going to pay that tax," he said.

Commissioners considered putting the issue on the November ballot. However, given the current economic struggles and the recent tax increase by the North Carolina state government, which will raise Duplin's sales tax to nearly 8 percent, the board decided to wait.

Waiting will also save taxpayer money. Placing the referendum on the November ballot would have cost the county an additional $15,000 to $20,000, while it will incur no additional cost to have it added to the May ballot.

Waiting will also give the fire departments time to rally the community in support of the tax increase, several board members said.

Commissioner Zettie Williams asked Pearce to speak with each fire department and request a formal letter of commitment from all fire department chiefs stating their support for the sales tax increase.

"You're going to have to sell this," Commissioner Reginald Wells said, adding that he would support the referendum.

Commissioner David Fussell said it would be difficult to encourage citizens to pass the new sales tax increase, and warned that the public could be "up in arms" over the issue.

"We are taxing our businesses out of existence," Fussell said. "This is not a good political time to put a tax increase on the ballot."

"That may be true, but we need the money," Herring replied.

There could also be a benefit to citizens. Having more advanced equipment at local stations could result in a much lower cost for homeowners' insurance policies, Pearce said.

In related business, the commissioners also voted to give the county emergency services department $100,000 to buy a new ambulance. One of the existing ambulances is in an irreparable state, Pearce said, and even following a "national search" through the ambulance manufacturer, Ford, officials could not locate the parts to repair the 1998 model ambulance.

Commissioner Fussell was momentarily out of the room at the time of the vote and did not vote on the issue.