Sales tax to increase in Swain
Swain County voters have typically been adamantly opposed to any sort of tax hike, whether it’s a property tax or a sales tax, which is why many were pleasantly surprised to see a quarter-cent sales tax increase approved following the Nov. 6 election.
Approval of the sales tax referendum will increase the county’s sales tax from 6.75 percent to 7 percent, and the additional revenue — anticipated to bring in another $300,000 a year — will be earmarked for school capital improvement projects.
Out of 10,441 registered voters in Swain County, over 5,000 people voted on the sales tax referendum measure — 54 percent in favor and 46 percent opposed. The exact same referendum appeared on the 2016 ballot in Swain County, but failed with nearly 58 percent of voters against the measure.
While 2016 saw a 58 percent voter turnout in Swain, this year’s midterms saw a 51 percent voter turnout, perhaps the reason the measure was able to pass, but also local officials put more effort into educating the public this year about why the increase was needed.
Swain County operates under a tight budget of about $15 million a year. A vast majority of the land inside the county is owned by the federal government, which means the county can’t collect property tax on it. These limitations make it difficult for the county and the school system to fund school operations, let alone plan for large capital projects.
In 2016, the county commissioners supported placing the referendum on the ballot and committed to earmarking the additional sales tax revenue for school projects. However, no one took the lead on educating the community and pushing the measure forward. To make matters worse, the referendum language did not include details about how the money would be used.
The North Carolina Board of Elections controls the ballot language so local leaders had no control over that. But they did wise up after the 2016 referendum failed. Newly named Schools Superintendent and former principal of Swain County High School Mark Sale published a video series on Facebook to educate parents and the community, and the What About Our Children Committee formed and found businesses to sponsor advertising in the local newspaper. All six candidates for county commissioner — whether Democrat or Republican — were supporters of the tax increase, especially since tourists help pay a large percentage of the sales tax in the county.
Now that the sales tax increase has passed, the school system and the county can begin planning a major renovation project to better secure the high school.
Swain County Schools received a $4.7 million critical needs capital construction grant from the state to put toward the capital project. However, to make that project possible, first the school system is going to need to complete a road construction project at the high school to reroute traffic flow. The state grant cannot be used for road construction, which is why getting the sales tax referendum passed was so important. Now that additional sales tax revenue stream can cover some of that cost.