Duplin commissioners say tax increase likely
By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on April 23, 2010 1:46 PM
KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County property owners are likely to face a 14-cent supplemental tax this year to pay a nearly $4.8 million award to the Duplin County Board of Education.
The Duplin County Board of Commissioners met Thursday to discuss how to proceed now that the state Supreme Court has ended the legal fight over the payment, which a jury awarded the school board in 2008.
Commission legal representative Mike Yarborough met with the board during what was proposed to be a closed session. The commissioners chose to open the meeting to the public for discussion and input.
The commission unanimously approved a motion that county staff begin examining the mechanism needed to institute the supplemental tax, as suggested by Yarborough to comply with the court order.
There are still many questions to be answered about how to proceed, the attorney told the board.
"We're walking down a path that no one's trod before," Yarborough said.
However, the lawyer said he believes the county has exhausted its options for fighting the case in court.
"I believe that there, at this time, there is no more effective or cost-effective way to continue the challenge of this judgment. Saying that, that leads us to consider complying with it. How do we comply with it?" Yarborough said.
The attorney has represented other counties in similar court cases, and said that the Duplin case was unlike any of the others due to the county's economic struggles.
Commissioners additionally directed County Manager Mike Aldridge and his staff to examine the county's fund balance, which Aldridge reported does not contain enough money to pay the award and remain above the state-mandated level all counties are required to maintain.
Commissioners discussed whether it would be better to pay the awarded amount with a check from the county's fund balance and then approach raising the money to replace the sum, or to institute the tax and give the money to the school board as it comes in from taxpayers. They also considered whether to pay some of the amount from the fund balance and the rest from taxes.
Commissioners Zettie Williams and Reginald Wells and several members of the audience spoke against the latter option.
"Let's do not think about piece-mealing it," Ms. Williams said.
The commissioners and Yarborough have not had any official word from the court about a timeline for making the payment. However, Commission Chairman Cary Turner said he received Thursday a hand-delivered letter from school board attorney David Philips requesting that the $4,795,784 payment be made to the school board immediately.
Yarborough said in most cases, when the court determines an opinion, the party has 20 days for the mandate to go through.
"As far as I know, nobody's been served with anything," he said.
However, if the county must levy a special tax to pay the amount, state tax law specifies that citizens must have 120 days to respond to their bills, county attorney Wendy Sivori said.
At this point, the board must "make a good faith effort to comply with the court order," Yarborough said.
Concerned citizens, local public officials and the commissioners discussed their worries over how an additional 14-cent tax payment will affect Duplin residents. More than 5,600 taxpayers did not pay their bills from last year, Turner said.
"I'm mighty disappointed that there has been such a lack of respect for the taxpayers," he said.
Turner asked if it would be legal to include photographs of the school board members in an explanatory letter to citizens regarding the tax. Yarborough replied that such an action might be crossing the line beyond the county's duty to provide residents with information.
Commissioners Ms. Williams and Wells spoke against the idea. Wells cited his concerns over the potential for a school board member to be physically harmed in some way by the action.
"We don't want anybody to get hurt based on a letter," Wells said.
Ms. Williams urged the board members "Whatever we do now, let us do it in a professional way."
Members of the audience in attendance thanked commissioners for the decision to make the meeting public. Several spoke out against the lawsuit and voiced opinions that the school board did not need the funding.
If the school board members wished, even after the court decision, they could willingly choose to release the county from having to make the payment, Yarborough said in response to a question.
However, while possible, that is unlikely to happen, Turner pointed out.
The board recessed until their next meeting.