Sales tax to increase in Jackson
Nearly two-thirds of Jackson County voters who visited the polls last week said yes to a referendum question asking to raise the county’s sales tax by one-fourth of a cent. Education leaders are rejoicing at the outcome.
“It was a great night for Jackson County Public Schools and Southwestern Community College,” said Mike Murray, superintendent of Jackson Schools. “This tax will provide opportunities for generations of students for both of our organizations.”
“I am extremely thankful to the people of Jackson County for recognizing the value SCC and our local public schools bring to the community through our education and training,” agreed Don Tomas, president of SCC.
The word “education” didn’t appear anywhere on the ballot, but Jackson County Commissioners put the question on there with an eye to use proceeds from the increased sales tax for capital projects in the schools and community college — they formalized the intention with a resolution passed March 3.
“I think this was real important for education and frankly for us as commissioners that we got the level of support that we did,” said Commissioner Vicki Greene.
Opposition to the vote
The tax increase did bring out some vocal opposition, however. Ron Mau, a councilmember for the Village of Forest Hills who is looking to unseat Greene in November, was one of the most outspoken opponents. His criticism largely centered on the timing of the election.
“The current commissioners failed to follow their legislative mandate,” he said. “Waiting until November would have resulted in roughly an additional 15,000 citizens of Jackson County having their voices heard.”
June primary elections have a historically low turnout — statewide, turnout last week sat at 7.7 percent. By contrast, the 2012 presidential race brought 68.3 percent of North Carolina voters to the polls. Mau said commissioners should have waited to put the question on the November ballot, when more people would have weighed in.
“Leadership should be transparent and should do the right thing so these situations do not arise in the future,” he said.
Commissioners defended the placement on the June ballot as necessary to start addressing educational needs in a timely manner and pointed out that the November ballot will be crowded with a large number of high-profile races — by placing the sales tax question on the June ballot, they said, voters would be better able to focus on that single issue.
“In geologic terms five months (until November) is not very long, but in terms of the decline of school buildings, that is a major amount of time,” Greene said.
At 11.1 percent, turnout in Jackson County was substantially higher than in the state as a whole, though still a fraction of what is expected in November.
Mau also criticized the tax as a “regressive” increase on “the poor and vulnerable.” Proponents of the increase had responded that, at just a fourth of a cent, it will add just 25 cents per $100 spent and would not apply to food and groceries, the most important purchase categories for low-income people.
Plans for the revenues
State government gives counties the option to increase the 6.75 percent statewide sales tax to an even 7 percent, with all revenues from the extra quarter-cent going back to the county — the base 6.75 percent sales tax is shared between the county and state. Jackson will now be the 28th of 100 counties to adopt the extra quarter-cent, joining its neighbor Haywood County. The extra quarter-cent is expected to bring in $1.2 million per year.
“That steady income will help us accomplish some of those things we’d like to see accomplished,” Murray said. “It won’t pay for it all, but will allow us to do some long-term planning.”
Earlier this year, commissioners committed to fund nearly $9 million worth of repairs and renovations in the public schools, through a loan to be financed using existing sales tax proceeds. A portion of the sales tax the county already receives is earmarked for education.
Murray and Tomas agree that SCC is now next in line for investment from the county, an idea with which commissioners seem to concur. The project at the top of everyone’s priority list right now is a new health sciences building for the college. The highest-ticket item identified in a recently completed master plan for SCC, the building is expected to cost around $16.3 million.
“I did take a tour of the (existing) health sciences building with Dr. Tomas and saw what they had now, what they need, and I remember telling him at one point, ‘You could have stopped this 45 minutes earlier because I’ve seen enough to know that you really do need a new facility,’” Greene said.
The existing facility, built for four health sciences programs, now hosts 14 programs and would be able to accept 100 more students per year without hiring more staff if the space were bigger, Tomas said. Those are well-paying, in-demand jobs, Greene said, so it would behoove the county to expand its ability to educate people in those fields.
“It would be a good investment for Jackson County and the community college,” she said.
But even with voters approving the sales tax, revenue won’t start pouring in right away. First commissioners have to take a final vote to call for the tax, which they have scheduled for 2 p.m. Tuesday, June 28.
If they do approve the tax at that meeting, it wouldn’t start being charged until Oct. 1, with the county receiving revenues beginning Jan. 10, 2017. And when it comes to the health sciences building, some time will pass before designs are drawn and construction can begin.
“It will be maybe this time next year before we’ll be able to start the process of being able to approve the project,” said Commission Chairman Brian McMahan. “Unfortunately things don’t happen too quick.”
Once approval happens, then contract bids have to go out and the lengthy process of construction must occur. The most optimistic scenario places completion in 2019 or 2020, Tomas said.
Depending on how the process unfolds, there could be a year or years of tax collections before bills are due on the health sciences building. In the interim, commissioners could identify smaller projects to use those tax proceeds on. Or they could put the money aside in an account to use toward the health sciences building later, deferring some of the interest they would otherwise owe.
“There’s so many things we could do,” McMahan said. “That’s the positive part of it.”
• Oct. 1: Sales tax in Jackson County will increase to 7 percent for all taxable purchases except gas and groceries
• Jan. 10, 2017: Jackson County will begin receiving revenue from the extra quarter-cent
• Summer 2017: Earliest point when a plan for a new health sciences building could be ready to approve, if Southwestern Community College and commissioners decide to proceed with the project.
• 2019: Earliest point a new health sciences building could be complete.
By the numbers
• 1,795 people (63.5 percent) voted in favor of the additional fourth-cent sales tax
• 1,030 people (36.5 percent) voted against the sales tax
• 2,843 ballots cast
• 25,678 registered voters in Jackson County
• 11.1 percent voter turnout in Jackson County June 7
• 7.7. percent voter turnout statewide June 7
• 68.3 percent statewide voter turnout during the November 2012 presidential elections