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Swain County to vote on quarter-cent sales tax

swainSwain County residents will get to decide whether the county can levy an additional quarter-cent sales tax when they vote during the Nov. 8 general election.

If the sales tax referendum passes, the county’s sales tax will increase from 6.75 percent to an even 7 percent and the revenue raised will be specifically designated for projects for Swain County Schools.  

County Manager Kevin King said the additional quarter-cent revenue would generate an estimated $290,000 a year for the school system to use for capital improvements to Swain’s five school buildings. 

In speaking with members of the public, Commissioner Danny Burns said some were concerned that commissioners would decrease the county contribution to the schools and supplant it with revenue from the quarter-cent sales tax. He asked that referendum language be amended to say the county’s appropriation to the schools would not be impacted if the referendum passes. 

“As far as getting people on board with this, I think it needs to say that,” Burns said. 

King said that was a valid concern since that is basically what has happened with the North Carolina Education Lottery revenues even though it was touted as additional education funding to that already being provided by the state. 

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“I’ve been told by everybody I’ve talked to that as long as the county is not supplanting funds, they’d vote for it,” said School Superintendent Sam Pattillo. 

The Swain County Board of Education requested the additional quarter-cent sales tax referendum because capital needs continue to grow and state and federal funding continue to remain static or shrink. This year the county contributed $220,000 to the schools, which was a $60,000 increase over last year. It still wasn’t enough — during discussions with the county, school officials told commissioners they needed $500,000 a year to maintain the school facilities. Only $80,000 of the county’s allocation to the schools was for capital needs. 

If capital projects could be fully funded through county appropriations and the sales tax revenue, the school system could then free up the impact money it receives from the federal government to fund other projects.  

“The main reasons we are participating in this referendum is because in Swain County we are in an area highly impacted by federal lands, and we put a lot of stress on the local government to come up with local appropriations,” Pattillo said. 

As the student population continues to grow in Swain, Pattillo said the school system needs to be prepared for that growth. An eight-classroom expansion at West Swain Elementary School was completed several years ago, and Pattillo said it wouldn’t have been possible without the federal impact funding and help from the county. Now East Elementary is in need of an eight-classroom expansion and the middle and high schools are in need of updates to accommodate more modern programs. 

Pattillo said he and the school board have full intentions of making themselves available to members of the public to explain why the additional sales tax is needed. Beginning sometime in August, he said he would begin to hold community meetings about it. 

“This referendum allows our citizens to have a voice on whether they agree with the vision and what our future schools should look like,” he said. “We want our community involved in the decision — we need to have an open conversation about it and also look 10 to 30 years down the road to talk about new opportunities we can take advantage of.”

The commissioners voted unanimously to approve the referendum with amended language to say revenue would not be supplanted for county contributions. 

Jackson County voters approved the same quarter-cent sales tax during the June 7 primary election — the only difference is the revenue will go to Jackson County Schools as well as Southwestern Community College infrastructure projects. The quarter-cent also rounded out Jackson’s sale tax to an even 7 percent and is expected to raise an additional $1.1 million. While only 22 percent of Jackson residents voted in the June 7 primary, the sales tax referendum was approved by two-thirds of voters. 

If approved, the sales tax does not apply to food or grocery purchases.

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