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.