Commissioners’ unanimous decision last week put the question on the June 7 ballot, a second primary recently called statewide when a court order required that boundary lines on some U.S. House districts be redrawn before the vote.
“This is not a partisan issue,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan, citing strong past support for education from both Republican- and Democrat-run boards, “and I would encourage both political parties and everybody involved to go out and advocate on behalf of our students.”
“I’m all for this,” agreed Commissioner Boyce Dietz. “I think our school system is more important than anything we fund. We’re raising taxes when we do this. We raise them for anything, that’s what it should be for.”
Commissioner meetings always feature a public comment session before any votes take place, and though the audience was full of representatives from Jackson County Public Schools and Southwestern Community College, only one person addressed the board.
That person was Ron Mau, a councilmember for the Village of Forest Hills who will be running for county commissioner on the Republican ticket in November. He didn’t take a position on the tax increase itself, instead arguing against the timing of the referendum.
“If the goal of a vote is to hear the opinion of the people of Jackson County, recent data from the last two presidential elections in 2012 and 2008 suggests the tax increase should be a ballot issue for the November general election, not the June secondary primary,” Mau said.
He cited voter turnout data from those years to illustrate the point. In 2012, 61 percent of Jackson County’s registered voters — 17,000 people — came out to vote in November, while only 4 percent came out for the second primary.
“In my opinion, five months is a small price to pay in order to provide a better and more transparent opportunity for the voters to make their statement,” Mau said.
McMahan said Mau has a “very valid point” but argued that raw voter turnout is not necessarily the best way to gauge a vote’s effectiveness.
“By putting it on the ballot in November, while you may attract more voters to the polls, I don’t know you can attract more attention to the issue,” McMahan said.
The November ballot will be a busy one, including races for president, governor, county commissioner and legislative representatives in both D.C. and Raleigh.
“I think the issue of a little quarter-cent sales tax gets forgotten in all that,” McMahan said.
By putting it on the June ballot, he theorizes, the message surrounding that election can be stronger and more focused. And, commissioners will know the outcome before they finalize the budget for 2016-17.
Capital needs from Jackson Schools and SCC prompted commissioners’ interest in upping the sales tax. SCC recently completed a master plan that calls for $32 million of renovations and new construction on its Jackson County campus over the next couple decades. A $16.3 million health sciences building is included in that figure. The school says the project would be key to keeping its health care programs competitive and supplying the medical professionals needed to meet the area’s need. Meanwhile, Jackson Schools has amassed a long list of critical needs, such as replacing leaky roofs and failing HVAC systems, totaling about $10 million.
“With the collective amount of actual critical needs facing us daily, this will be the best way to take care of our current facility problems,” said Mike Murray, Jackson Schools superintendent.
Commissioners have been juggling the numbers every which way in their meetings and work sessions over the last few months. The possibility of adding the quarter-cent sales tax was first floated publicly in a Feb. 24 work session.
“What bothers me is our lottery system that we have for our schools,” Dietz said at the March 3 meeting. “If that had been handled like it should have, we wouldn’t even have been sitting here talking about this.”
When implemented, 40 percent of N.C. Education Lottery proceeds were to go to school construction, but in recent years that number has been much lower.
If adopted, the tax would bring an estimated $1.1 million in each year on top of the $9.27 million the county receives from the existing sales tax — $2.6 million of that already goes to education. The extra money would be enough to pay — with some left over — the debt service on a loan funding either the school system’s $10 million list of critical needs or for a new health sciences building at SCC — if the N.C. Connect bond passes, that is. The bond would provide $7.1 million to SCC that could be used toward the project. Debt service on the project without the bond money would be $1.4 million.
“The funding SCC would receive through this referendum would be of tremendous assistance as we work toward providing the type of facilities we need to continue helping our students be successful,” said Don Tomas, SCC’s president.
While educational needs have undeniably been the impetus behind the proposed tax increase, the June ballot question won’t make any mention of schools or educational facilities. The question will simply ask for a yes or no on increasing the current sales tax by a quarter of a percent.
That’s why the education leaders whose organizations stand to benefit from the tax will have the job of making sure voters know what the question really means and the impact its outcome will have.
“This is all of our jobs to fully inform the public about the benefits of this additional quarter-cent sales tax,” said Commissioner Vicki Greene.
By the numbers
• $9.27 million from the existing sales tax is returned to Jackson County.
• 4.75 percent of current 6.75 percent sales tax goes to the state, with the county receiving 2 percent.
• $2.65 million of sales tax dollars is currently earmarked for education.
• $799,000 of education dollars from current sales tax is not committed to another project.
• $1.1 million in revenue estimated from additional quarter-cent sales tax.
• $833,000 would cover debt service on a $10 million loan for critical capital needs in the county school system.
• $757,000 would cover debt service on a $16.3 million health sciences building at Southwestern Community College if $7.1 million of state bond money was available. $1.4 million would be needed without the bond money.
• 29 of 100 counties have authorized the additional quarter-cent sales tax, including Haywood and Buncombe, which both designate the money for community colleges.