Wayne County commissioners have backed off of a proposed 1.5 cent property tax increase at least for the next two weeks.
Instead, the commissioners instructed County Manager Craig Honeycutt to try to find the money in his proposed budget.
The delay came in the face of overwhelming opposition — mostly from the agriculture industry — to the increase from a standing-room-only crowd during an hourlong Tuesday morning public hearing on the budget.
Freeman Hardison, chairman of the Wayne County Republican Party, said the party opposes the proposed tax increase.
Despite the difference of opinion, the crowd was orderly and respectful of the comments being made.
Commissioner Joe Daughtery, who just a week earlier championed the increase in part to bolster teacher supplements, made the motion to delay approving the budget and tax rate to give Honeycutt time to see if money for the supplements could be found elsewhere.
His motion last Wednesday calling for the increase was approved by a 4-3 vote. He was joined by Commissioners John Bell, Ed Cromartie and Ray Mayo. Commissioners Joe Gurley, Wayne Aycock and Bill Pate voted no.
In that motion, Daughtery specified that revenues from 1 cent of the increase be used to increase supplements for classroom teachers. It would result in about $400 to $425 in a teacher’s supplement, he said.
A penny on the tax rate equates to approximately $825,000 that would need to be found for the supplements.
Revenues from the remaining half cent will be used to help offset a projected 1.8 cent tax increase that will be needed in two years to help pay down some $6 million in new debt in Honeycutt’s proposal.
Daughtery’s motion to delay the vote did not address the other half cent of his original motion.
Tuesday’s vote to delay was unanimously approved.
Commissioners did not indicate what they would do if the money could not be found elsewhere. However, Gurley, Aycock and Pate, who could not attend the meeting but joined in by phone, said they would not vote for a tax increase.
Mayo said if nothing else, the discussion has forced the county to face an issue that the commission has been kicking down the road for 20 years.
Mayo said he thinks the public has lost confidence in both commissioners and the school board. The two boards need to be more transparent, he said.
He said he wanted to know what the school board was doing with $700,000 in low-wealth funding. He also questioned why the school board had spent $175,000 on an outside law firm. He also questioned $185,000 spent for architectural fees for designing classrooms for northern Wayne County that have yet to be built.
Mayo wanted to know how long the plans are good for.
Bell and Cromartie indicated that while they support the delay, they are not ruling out the need for the increase.
“Now, I take a different approach than some of my fellow commissioners do,” Bell said. “The first thing that you have got to do in running an operation — you have got to watch your spending. You can’t spend like you are the Rockefellers and then cut taxes at the same time like we did on this board.”
Bell said he has been on the board for a long time and thought the board had the fund balance where it needed to be. But the new board came in and cut taxes without much thought.
Now the county has spent the money, needs money, but is saying it is not going to raise taxes. The board needs to look at spending and then it won’t have to raise taxes, he said.
“It is hard for me to say I am not going to vote for a tax increase, and I have already spent your money,” Bell said.
NOT THE TIME
Most of the nine people who spoke against the increase were farmers, and their comments followed the same line.
They argued that the farm community continues to struggle to rebuild in the wake of Hurricanes Matthew and Florence and that now is not the time for an increase.
Several noted that their taxes will go up even without a tax increase because of higher property values brought on by the recent countywide property revaluation and the fact that Honeycutt’s original proposal keeps the tax rate at 66.35 cents per $100 worth of property tax value.
State law requires the revaluation once every eight years and that a revenue neutral tax rate be published — meaning the county would collect the same amount of taxes that it did in the current year.
Commissioners are not required to adopt a revenue-neutral tax rate, which in this case would be 64.98 cents per $100 value.
Gurley said that even keeping the current tax rate would amount to a 1.4 to 1.5 cent tax increase.
Jim Lynch, who was representing Goldsboro Milling Co., said it is a “really tough time” for agriculture.
Lynch said he understands firsthand the importance of education since his wife is an educator.
“The phrase double whammy comes to mind,” Lynch said. “Double whammy normally has a negative connotation, and I think it keeps for this situation — to propose a tax increase during a year of revaluation.
“Agriculture is going to bear a lot of that brunt ... the biggest industry in North Carolina, Wayne County rather, is agriculture. We cannot support a tax increase in a revaluation year.”
Several of those opposing the increase called on commissioners for a quarter-cent sales tax referendum, promising that they would work toward its approval.
Voters defeated a sales tax referendum that was on the November 2018 ballot. Speakers at the Tuesday meeting said the measure failed because of the number of amendments that had been on the ballot and because it was a last-minute issue that was not promoted properly.
Mount Olive Town Commissioners Barbara Kornegay and Dennis Draper and civic leader Lynn Williams spoke in favor of the increase.
“I come to you here today to support your plans for a small tax increase to take care of our teachers in the Wayne County schools,” Kornegay said. “Attracting and retaining qualified teachers who feel valued for what they do will do much to increase the viability of our schools.”
Kornegay told commissioners that approval of the increase would have a positive effect on the county’s economic development, since industry leaders consider the quality of schools when bringing employees to the county.
“When new families see that the community is not willing to provide better schools, that’s bad for business,” she said.