via Campaign Will Lobby for Sales Tax Vote | News | thepilot.com.
County Commissioners’ Chairman Nick Picerno hopes the county will unite behind a proposed quarter-cent increase in the sales tax next March to help some of the school system’s most pressing construction needs.
“I don’t want this to be political,” Picerno said Tuesday morning. “I want to see us come together as a county to support this to improve the quality of our schools and give our kids the best opportunity to be successful.”
But the county itself is limited in its advocacy for the referendum that will appear on the March 15 ballot. The county can provide information to voters about the issue, but state law prohibits the county from “persuading” voters one way or another, Picerno said.
To that end, a local committee will be formed early next year to mount a lobbying campaign for the local referendum as well as the statewide $2 billion “Connect NC” bond issue, said local businessman George Little.
Little, who is chairman of the Sandhills Community College Board of Trustees and vice chairman of Partners in Progress, said local leaders are in the early stages of forming a committee and filing paperwork. The committee will likely officials from the school system and SCC.
“I think the commissioners made the right decision,” he said of seeking voter approval of a sales tax increase rather than raising property taxes. “Any time we can do something like this without raising property taxes is a good thing. This is the better way to do it.”
The broader $2 billion state bond issue includes a Moore County component. If passed, $8.5 million for the Samarcand Law Enforcement Training Academy, $3.8 million would go to renovations at SCC and $428,250 would fund projects at Weymouth Woods State Natural Area in Southern Pines.
Little, who is also chairman of the county’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, pointed out that tourists —through their local spending — would help the county fund its school needs. That will likely be one of the selling points in the campaign.
“That lessens the burden on local folks,” Little said. “We have all of these people coming into the county who will help us.”
Tourism spending in Moore County in 2014 — the year of the U.S. Open and Women’s Open in Pinehurst — topped $439 million, a figure some local leaders think was low given the impact of the golf championships.
And Picerno is quick to point out that property taxpayers have been contributing over the years toward helping meet school construction needs. Commissioners have maintained a higher tax rate over the last several years than is necessary to cover all its expenses.
“We’ve kept the excess funds and set them aside to provide money for this very purpose,” Picerno said. “So we have already laid that at the feet of the taxpayer. They already helping foot that bill.”
With the county running surpluses each year, commissioners voted several years ago to set aside a portion in a capital reserve fund. The county has built up $21.9 million in the fund. The commissioners, who generally abhor incurring long-term debt if they can avoid it, will use money from the fund, as well as existing funds to pay for school construction projects, in addition to money from the sales tax increase.
A quarter-cent increase in the sales tax is expected to generate about $2.2 million a year. That would enable the county to borrow money on a short-term basis to fund the top projects on the school board’s $237 million Master Facilities Plan. The top priorities include an Advanced Career Center high school and three new elementary schools.
Commissioners have made clear their opposition to going the traditional route of selling bonds and raising the property tax rate to pay for that debt — a strategy that has been employed successfully three times in the past 30 years — because of the massive amount of interest, which Picerno says “gets you nothing.”
Picerno said the sales tax referendum is more than just seeking permission for the quarter-cent increase.
“It is also a referendum to ask permission to borrow money,” he said. “We are going to have to borrow money to fix our schools. The sales tax increase gives us a huge stream to dedicate to that fully. I believe that with some short-term borrowing, we can do this with minimal interest payments.”
Picerno said the county is developing informational materials about the sales tax increase. As an individual, he is free to speak his mind and he said he is willing to do that with any group to explain the proposed tax increase.
“The truth is the best thing in politics,” he said. “This gives us our best chance to meet these needs.”