The increased demands on the county budget to accommodate anticipated growth challenges is being recognized by the county staff, as indicated by their proposal to once again consider a quarter cent sales tax. If the county pursues this tax it will be the third time in as many election cycles and will require greater focus to convince the voters.
County Manager Tommy Burns presented the idea of a quarter cent sales tax increase at a county commissioners budget retreat last week. Under Article 46 of the state statute, the county can enact an additional sales tax of up to one-half cent for use in the general fund. Mr. Burns’ proposal was for only a quarter cent sales tax, which he calculated will generate $3.6 million annually. Even this amount seems paltry considering the growth expectations in the county and subsequent impacts on facilities and services.
Recent articles in the News-Times have detailed how the county’s school facilities are being stressed as the population growth has only just begun in the western portion of the county. White Oak Elementary School’s student population is already beyond capacity, and in the years to come the problem will only get worse as those students move on to Broad Creek Middle and Croatan High School, and as more families move into that region of the county.
In addition to school facilities, the county is now looking to expand and centralize its Emergency Service Department and the communications equipment needs updating. Based on the experiences from hurricanes Florence and Dorian, remedial action is critical and will be costly.
All of these issues will require funding and the county, which already is noted for its low property tax rate, is going to be challenged to fund these needs and thus the possibility of an additional quarter cent sales tax.
To make the proposal more palatable for a referendum the staff is suggesting two purposes for the tax – school construction needs and inlet and harbor dredging. These are suggestions only and if accepted cannot be guaranteed in the referendum since Article 46 does not allow for a targeted purpose, but only for the county’s general fund. If commissioners do decide to present a sales tax referendum in the November election they will have to do a better job in selling the idea than the two previous failed attempts.
In 2016 the board sought public support through a referendum but lost by almost 14 percentage points - 57 percent opposed and 43 percent approved. The sales effort for the tax lacked any serious explanation as to how it would benefit the majority of voters since it was planned only for harbor dredging. It was seen as only benefiting the boating public.
Including school construction projects will increase support for the sales tax but it will require complete transparency on the part of the commissioners. Because the authorizing legislation dictates that the added sales tax cannot be dedicated for specific purposes, the county will have to take action to assure the public of its intent.
Considering the lost revenues that would have been coming to Carteret County Schools for construction in the 2021-21 budget, but are not because of Governor Cooper’s veto of the budget, the county must begin now to find revenues to handle the impending growth.
The county is correct in planning to address its financial needs regardless of the state and federal promises which can change with the wind. An additional sales tax will help but it is imperative that the county is transparent in this endeavor, otherwise the third time will not be a charm and the tax will fail.