Nick Picerno

Moore County commissioners are considering the possibility of taking another shot at winning voter approval for a quarter-cent sales tax increase to help pay for school construction by putting the referendum back on the ballot in November.

The measure failed by a 428-vote margin March 15. Commissioners say that despite efforts to educate the public about the use of the funds, many people may not have realized it was intended solely to pay for building new schools.

“We will certainly be talking about that a lot more,” Board of Commissioners Chairman Nick Picerno said Friday. “We believe that if everyone understood that it would go to schools, it would have passed.”

Picerno pointed out that state law restricted what wording could appear on the ballot.

“It was arcane, which hurt us,” he said. “Compare that to the several paragraphs on the Connect NC bond issue, which passed.”

Picerno said he has spoken with state Sen. Jerry Tillman about trying to have state law changed on how the wording must appear on the ballot for such a sales tax increse.

“They need to give us some flexibility on the language,” he said.

Some voters had also questioned whether all of the money from the sales tax increase would continue to be used for schools in the future or if it could be diverted for other purposes.

Prior to the March 15 primary election, the commissioners voted unanimously to ask local lawmakers to introduce a bill to restrict the use of the funds from the tax increase for school construction, with a sunset provision for it to go away once the schools construction needs were met. Under state law, a current board cannot obligate a future board to use the revenues for a certain purpose. Revenue from that type of sales tax increase could also be used for economic development and transportation.

In the meantime, as the county finalizes its budget for the new fiscal year that begins July 1, Picerno said commissioners will be working with the school board to get started with the first project on the priority list, the Advanced Career Center high school planned across the street from Sandhills Community College. School officials have said that would take some of the enrollment pressure off the three existing high schools and delay the need for renovations and expansion in the near term.

“We have the money now to do that project,” Picerno said. “We may even be able to fund the second project. We don’t want to stop the process.”

The second project on the list is a new elementary school for the Whispering Pines/Vass areas to ease crowding at Sandhills Farm Life and Vass Lakeview.

The third and fourth projects are new elementary schools for the Aberdeen and Southern Pines area that would replace the existing outdated campuses.

The commissioners have scheduled a special work session April 14-15 to discuss funding for various capital improvements. The county will also be facing the need to build a new courthouse in the next few years in addition to schools.

Commissioners had pledged to use revenues from the sales tax increase — estimated at $2.2 million a a year — to help pay for the top four projects on the school board’s priority list, with an estimated cost of $119 million. The county would use a combination of existing funds, a portion of its annual surpluses and short-term loans to pay for the projects.

Various theories have been discussed about why the March sales tax measure failed. The final official tally was 12,904 against to 12,475 in favor. Voters in just 11 of the 26 precincts — all five in Pinehurst, four in Southern Pines and one each for Whispering Pines and Seven Lakes — supported the sales tax proposal.

Some have speculated that the referendum did poorly among minority voters because the local chapter of the NAACP and some minority leaders did not advocate on its behalf.

O’Linda Watkins, president of the local chapter of the NAACP, said the organization “cannot officially take a position on the issue.”

“We wanted to give them (NAACP members) a chance to let them choose for themselves if they wanted a property tax or a sales tax increase,” Watkins said, “so we presented the information on all sides to them. My position was to let the people decide how the schools should be funded.” 

Asked if she would personally advocate for one position over another should the sales tax come up for a vote again, Watkins said she would not.

“We would analyze what is best for the people,” she said. “Our position is to make sure people register and go to the polls. We put the issues out there, but we can’t endorse anyone. How an issue impacts minorities and the poor, however, are a concern for us.” 

During the public comment period at the beginning of Nov. 17, 2015 meeting, Watkins and two other speakers urged the commissioners to reconsider seeking voter approval for a sales tax increase, calling it a “regressive” tax.

Watkins said the school system has a lot of facility needs but that the NAACP wants to make sure “the burden of paying for these improvements is not unfairly placed on those in our community less able to pay.” She added that the lowest 20 percent of households pay 50 percent more of their income in state and local taxes than the top 5 percent of earners.

She said if the commissioners would not take the sales tax increase off the table, then voters should also be asked whether they would support a two-cent property tax increase as an alternative. She presented data to commissioners comparing the two options, noting that a two-cent property tax increase would amount to an additional $2.90 a month for an average homeowner.

She said in her comments to the commissioners during the meeting that the NAACP supports the school board’s priority list, specifically mentioning the the Advanced Career Center high school that could be built across the road from Sandhills Community College.

Picerno said it was concerning that a majority of voters in the Aberdeen, Pinebluff and Vass precincts opposed the sales tax increase, since those three areas stand to benefit from the new elementary schools.

“Had Aberdeen and Vass voted for it, it would have passed,” Picerno said. “Both of of those communities are in need of new schools.”

Picerno, as well as the other four commissioners, have all said they felt supporters need to do a better job of making it clear to voters that the money from a sales tax increase would be used for school construction and nothing else. He suggested that the county look into holding more public forums, especially in areas where the measure failed in March, and get local elected officials on board.

“So they can let their constituents know that this will benefit them,” he said.

The Board of Commissioners itself cannot advocate for the measure. The county is allowed to provide educational information, which it did on its website and through a printed brochure. Individually, commissioners can advocate for voters to approve the measure.

Picerno said he personally opposes the idea of seeking a bond issue, which would result in “millions of dollars in interest that gets us nothing. It would not build one classroom.” The board has so far held to that same position.

Picerno, who is not seeking re-election to a third term and will go off the board Nov. 30, referred to information he shared at the board’s Dec. 1 meeting showing that with the exception of Lee and Chatham counties, Moore County residents pay more property taxes per capita ($625) than other surrounding counties and that residents pay $156 annually per capita in sales tax, second highest of six surrounding counties.

Picerno said an increase in the property tax also impacts vehicles and other personal property, and even those who rent their homes. He added that Moore County benefits from a substantial number of tourists, who would be helping fund school building needs by paying sales taxes.

He reiterated his comments from the December meeting: “A sales tax increase is the best way to go and have the least impact on everyone.”

Staff writer John Lentz contributed to this report.

(11) comments

David Sinclair

Scott B, the county has about $22 million in a capital reserve fund that it has built up from setting aside a portion of its annual surpluses each year

Scott Bowers

Mr. Sinclair, thank you for your reply. Actually, I was already aware of the $22 million in capital reserve, which I believe has been set aside by the County Commissioners, and to their credit I might add, for school construction. In fact, I believe I read they were planning to use it to be able to proceed with the new high school. But, with a $119 million estimated price tag for the first four school construction projects and about that much more again for the remaining six, not to mention a new courthouse in the offing, additional revenues will no doubt be needed. Don’t get me wrong; I applaud the Commissioners for doing what they’ve done and for saving that money. I certainly realize that, like the rest of us, they inherit many of the systems, processes, and limitations that come with their jobs. It’s just that, after having watched bond issues come and go in the past and the difficulties associated with them, I’ve always wondered why a bit of tax couldn’t be built into the system to in essence “save up” for the next construction projects, which will inevitably come up. I was hoping the ¼ percent sales tax increase might have been the first step in that direction, allowing us to get ahead of the game at some point. I imagine I’m just being politically naïve.

Scott Bowers

The question I have is; why aren’t we budgeting (and saving) for capital construction in the first place? It’s not like capital construction isn’t an on-going issue. Instead of waiting till a project is needed and then having to convince everyone a tax increase is necessary and then borrowing the money to pay for it and having to paying interest, create a line item in the budget and save for it. Projects could happen faster, cost less, and everything saved and spent would be visible in the budget for all to see. No more having to convince people to vote for a tax increase.

ken leary

The "slap in the face" is a result of the commissioners intransigence. I am all for financing the buildings and for raising teacher's pay rates. Raise the property tax rate and make the Raleigh tea people restore the corporate tax rate.

ken leary

“Picerno said he personally opposes the idea of seeking a bond issue, which would result in “millions of dollars in interest that gets us nothing. It would not build one classroom.” The board has so far held to that same position.”
With logic like this, and his insistence that he pays a higher rate of property tax because his house is more grandiose, Commissioner Piceno appears to be a person who would say anything to achieve his goal. Putting this back on the ballot, if not unethical, is disrespectful of Moore County’s citizens. You had your shot. Raise the property taxes.

Ell Cee

KR10, voting against it was a huge slap in the face to parents, students and educators. Walk in to any one of our public schools and you just might understand why the increase was/is desperately needed. Better yet, try being an effective teacher when you have a classroom with 30 + students and minimal support from the community! It's a dream job I tell you!

Walter B Bull

Nick says that paying interest gets you nothing. Hey Nick- it gets the buildings built NOW! You better revisit the time value of money studies. WBBJr

Ell Cee

Why was the wording for the tax restricted but not for the bond? Something smells like a bole of fish ; )

Scott Bowers

My understanding is the description on the ballot for the ¼% sales tax increase is mandated by state law and is very specific. According to the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners website, the form of the ballot question must be “[ ] FOR [ ]AGAINST Local sales and use tax at the rate of 1-quarter% (0.25%) in addition to all other State and local sales and use taxes.” The State doesn’t allow the local county government to include what the increase will be used for. Bonds are simply a different thing.

Ell Cee

If that is the case it's the most asinine thing I've ever heard of.

Scott Bowers

I kid you not.

Feel free to check it out yourself:

It was the fourth question listed in the FAQ.

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