In Today’s Herald: Sales tax on November ballot?

Lee County Commissioners will hold a rare “called meeting” next Tuesday to discuss – and likely vote about – putting a tax referendum on the November ballot. Jonathan Owens’ story in today’s Herald says commissioners will talk about the option given to counties by the N. C. General Assembly to either enact a 1/4-cent sales tax increase or a .4 percent land transfer fee to generate additional revenue.

Because it would generate more revenue, the sales tax option is the most likely one for Lee County. The county’s board of education has been pushing for the sales tax increase for some time now as a way to help pay for much-needed renovations to Lee County High School on Nash Street, renovations which could cost upwards of $29 million. But commissioners have been reluctant to address it in open forum and appeared to have delayed acting on it long enough to push a public vote off until next May.

On Wednesday, the county announced it would hold a special meeting the day after Labor Day to take up the matter. The meeting will be held at 3 p.m. in the commission board room at the county building on Hillcrest Drive. If commissioners don’t act on it Tuesday, as much as $750,000 in revenues generated by a sales tax (the likely outcome, if commissioners do what makes sense) will be lost for 2008 when the window on this opportunity closes at 5 p.m. Tuesday – just two hours after the scheduled meeting. (Otherwise any similar measures won’t go on the ballot until next May’s primary.) 

The scenarios for Tuesday’s meeting are interesting to consider.

First, the board might not even take a vote. It could just talk about options. And if a vote it cast on either of the options, the vote could conceivably fail.

That’s a likely possibility. The board’s finance committee has been discussing the options but hasn’t seen fit to bring it to the full board. Kirk Smith, the board’s liaison to the schools, and his fellow Republican on the board, Linda Shook, have pushed for the board to discuss the matter in regular session, as has Commissioner Ed Paschal. Commission Chairman Bob Brown made the decision this week to call the special meeting, as was his prerogative. It was the right move, given that three board members wanted open discussion about it, but Brown and the other three (all Democrats) have enough votes to quash any effort to put any kind of tax on the ballot.

If the board does vote, and votes in the affirmative, it could decide to put one or both of the measures on the November ballot.

From that point, it’s up to the voters – but even THAT vote isn’t binding. Voters would cast ballots on each of the options (the sales tax hike and the land transfer fee, based on the commissioners’ decision) separately, and unless one of them gets a majority of affirmative votes, then the issue is dead.

But even IF one of the options gets an affirmative vote, that public vote isn’t binding. It just gives commissioners the authorization to, at some point in the future, levy the tax or implement the fee. Whether the commissioners do so is up to them; without the affirmative vote from the public, however, the board can’t levy the tax or establish the fee.

Adding to the confusion is how much of the revenue generated will go to school construction. That decision will be made and outlined to voters on the ballot; the commission board will make that call, but even that decision isn’t fully binding – future commission boards could reverse or alter that decision.

Lee County residents should watch with interest how it unfolds on Tuesday. And read about it in Wednesday’s Herald.

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