County commissioners are expected to give their unanimous OK to a measure that would allow Haywood citizens to vote yes or no to a quarter-cent hike in the sales tax. Once commissioners approve that measure at their Feb. 4 meeting, the board of elections will put the measure before voters during the May primary. If the sales tax hike is approved, the county will use the recurring proceeds to finance the college’s building needs.
And there’s no denying the college’s needs. Many of the buildings still in use at the college were constructed near the time the institution was founded. Despite efforts to keep them in good shape, there are leaks, cracks and equipment that doesn’t work.
More importantly, however, is that the lack of space is causing curriculum issues. Several degree programs are in jeopardy because the college can’t provide students the space and technology necessary if the school is to remain accredited.
The situation at the college borders on embarrassing. Anyone who lives in Haywood County knows how much the college contributes to the community. Its more than 300 employees are an important part of the social fabric of the county; its graduates are employed everywhere; and some of its programs, like natural resources and production crafts, are nationally renowned. These are sources of pride for Haywood County.
Sow how did things get so bad that almost $70 million worth of needs have been identified? The charter for community colleges is set up so that the state pays operating costs and the counties pay for buildings and equipment. County commissioners have worked hard to keep the K-12 school system building needs caught up, spending millions in the process. Also, the last two decades have seen a tremendous increase in Medicaid costs, a program counties help pay for and that serves one in five of the state’s citizens. In addition, growth has led to sizeable spending increases in almost every county department.
Those costs have been met at the same time property taxes have remained relatively low. But now push has come to shove, and the sales tax is a good tool for several reasons. Even though the sales tax is generally regarded as regressive, at least in North Carolina basic foodstuffs are only taxed at 4.5 cents per $1. None of the sales tax money that is returned to the counties — and the new quarter cent would fall into this category — would come from the purchase of food families need to survive.
The sales tax is also very lucrative in areas that thrive on tourism. Visitors would be helping Haywood County citizens pay for improvements at the community college when they shop in our stores and stay in local hotels or inns.
The question isn’t whether Haywood citizens are going to pay for building needs at the community college. Those needs have to be met, and county leaders will have to find a way to pay for them. The question voters will answer in May is whether the school’s building needs will be paid for with a sales tax increase or a property tax hike. We think the sales tax is by far the best of the available options.