Jackson to vote on tax for education projects
When the polls open June 7, Jackson County voters will have a choice to make — whether to OK a small sales tax increase to provide additional funding for Jackson County Public Schools and Southwestern Community College.
The referendum question won’t mention education specifically, however. The question will simply ask voters if they’d support increasing the local sales tax by one-fourth of a penny. However, the Jackson County Commissioners passed a resolution in March stating that, if the increase is approved, the money will fund capital projects at SCC and Jackson Schools. Ever since, leaders of the two organizations have been campaigning for the referendum’s passage.
“This is a win-win because it’s not resting on the shoulders of the property owner only, but everyone,” said Don Tomas, president of SCC.
“That steady income will help us accomplish some of those things we’d like to see accomplished,” agreed Mike Murray, superintendent of Jackson Schools. “It won’t pay for it all, but it will allow us to do some long-term planning.”
The one-fourth-cent sales tax would bring in an estimated $1.2 million per year. The extra money would be charged on everything that sales tax currently applies to — but not gas or groceries.
“That’s a good thing,” said Commissioner Mark Jones of the exclusion for groceries and gas. “It doesn’t put as much burden on our families that are in need in Jackson County.”
Currently, 27 of 100 counties have adopted the additional quarter-cent sales tax, including Haywood County. The board of commissioners voted unanimously to place the question on the June ballot, but the decision has certainly stirred up some opposition as well.
Pros and cons
For Ron Mau, a councilmember for the Village of Forest Hills who is running for commissioner against incumbent Vicki Greene, much of the criticism has centered on the timing of the vote.
“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 told commissioners before they voted on the matter in March.
In 2012, 17,000 Jackson County residents voted in the November General Election, but only 1,029 voted in 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.
Supporters of the referendum, however, say that it might actually be a good thing to have the sales tax vote held in June, separately from the crowded November ballot.
“We wanted people’s votes to be focused on the one-fourth-cent sales tax as opposed to the turmoil, controversy that is part of the voting (in November),” Greene said.
Opponents of the referendum also contend that the county has enough money in its reserves to get going on needs at Jackson Schools and SCC. Even if a sales tax increase becomes necessary down the road, they say, Jackson isn’t at that point yet.
“This a tax that will never be removed, and I think number one the county has got enough money that if they will watch it instead of spending like they are, that they can do what they need to do without this tax increase,” said Ralph Slaughter, chairman of the Jackson County JOP.
The county currently has a savings account that is $8.3 million above the amount that the state requires counties to maintain, and the school district has a fund balance of $2.8 million. Of the sales tax the county currently takes in annually, $2.65 million is earmarked for education, and the county recently approved a plan to borrow $8.9 million so that Jackson County Schools could take care of its more pressing needs, like failing roofs and heating systems.
But schools aren’t the county’s only funding responsibility, said Jones, and the county’s overall property tax rate is quite low. It’s currently the lowest in the state and after the new budget is adopted in June will likely be the sixth lowest. Commissioners are currently debating plans to address a host of expensive capital projects, from the Health Department building to the animal shelter to a renovated Justice Center.
“That $8 million that we have in our fund balance is literally spent before we blink an eye,” Jones said.
Frank Burrell, chairman of the Jackson County Democrats and a former school superintendent in the county, is familiar with that reality and supports the referendum as a way to give the schools some ability to get the things done that always get shoved to the back of the list.
“It seemed like you never got around to doing some of the things you’d really like to see done,” he said, reflecting on his time with the school system. “This would enable the school system and SCC too to better plan and be involved in preventative maintenance.”
Plans for the funding
Murray says that, if the sales tax were approved, he’d expect SCC to get first crack at the funding. Jackson Schools did just receive nearly $9 million to address some of its critical needs, as well as $950,000 for an artificial turf football field and, just four years ago, $13.2 million for a fine arts and gym. The school system still has an additional $20 million in identified needs, he said — the list includes water upgrades, a new softball field and a regulation size track to replace the existing one, which isn’t competition-worthy — but SCC has needs as well, $32 million worth on its Jackson campus alone, according to a recently completed master plan.
In fact, the college’s Board of Trustees has already decided what it would like to see tackled first, if the sales tax vote comes back with a yes and if commissioners from the three counties the school serves get behind the plan.
In March, North Carolina voters approved a $2 billion infrastructure bond that included $7.1 million in capital funding for SCC. Using the money requires a match from counties, but if Macon County Commissioners release funds and if the sales tax vote is approved, SCC would like to see $1.4 million go to a new burn building and $300,000 to repave the driving course range — both in Macon County — but the remaining $5.4 million spent on a new health sciences building in Jackson County.
“It (the existing building) was built for four programs and we now have 14 health sciences programs,” Tomas said. “We’ve just kind of utilized every niche and corner and cranny that we could get space out of. We’re just in need of expansion and growth.”
In fact, if SCC had more space, it could accept 100 more students per year into its health sciences programs without hiring more instructors, Tomas said. Teaching those 100 additional students would bring in another half million dollars in revenue to the college.
But the health sciences building wouldn’t come cheap. It’s ballparked at $16.5 million.
The plan, Tomas said, would be to pair $5.4 million from the bond money with funds from a loan that would be serviced using revenue from the sales tax increase.
Regardless, it’s a big bill. Which is why Tomas and Murray are in support of approving the quarter-cent sales tax increase as soon as possible.
“Every month that you wait to get that money flowing is time that you lost, that you can’t recapture,” Murray said.
Slaughter, meanwhile, takes issue with planning to use the money for debt service rather than paying for purchases outright. In his view, the $9 million loan that commissioners agreed to give Jackson Schools is a perfect example — the projects should have been paid for upfront, out of fund balance if necessary, rather than purchased with a loan.
“They’re going to turn around and borrow this money and we’re going to have to pay interest on the full $9 million plus what they borrow,” Slaughter said.
In the end though, the question will be up to the voters, and proponents of the referendum say they’re hopeful it will pass.
“I don’t want good enough to be good enough when I’m the one that they may be picking up and throwing in the ambulance,” Tomas said of his health sciences students. “I want to know that that was a great education. We’ve been doing a lot really well with limited resources. Now we’re just asking to think about how much more we could do if we had adequate space and adequate resources.”
A second primary will be held Tuesday, June 7, for congressional primary candidates, with Jackson County voters also considering a referendum on a one-fourth-cent sales tax increase to fund education capital projects. The increase would not apply to gas or groceries.
Early voting will be held Thursday, May 26 through Saturday, June 4, with May 30 excluded due to Memorial Day. Voters can request absentee ballots through Tuesday, May 31. Sick and disabled voters can request absentee ballots from June 1 to June 6.