Editorial: Trust and taxes
If a local sales-tax increase appears on the November ballot, Rowan County officials likely will work hard to educate the public about the benefits. As it’s being presented, the extra 1 percent sales tax would enable the county to lower the property tax rate by 2 to 5 cents and create a pay-as-you-go building fund.
Commissioners have not committed to putting this to a vote yet. The idea may be gaining momentum, though. The county has needed a building fund for a long time. Vice Chairman Craig Pierce has obviously put a lot of thought into his proposal to restructure taxes.
But there’s reason to be skeptical about this plan, and not just the regressive nature of the sales tax. Through the years, Rowan’s county commissioners have not been faithful to the board’s pledges regarding referendums and taxes.
At least twice in recent years, voters have approved bond referendums with the understanding that the property tax rate would have to go up. Even though the ballot itself did not specifically address the tax rate, proponents made voters aware that the bonds would come at a price. In the cases of the Rowan-Salisbury School System and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, officials wanted and received votes of confidence from voters and, theoretically, assurance that the county would not have to cut other county services to pay off the bonds.
But commissioners come and go, and budget scenarios change. Rather than increase the property tax rate as much as proposed, commissioners have used lottery funds and lean budgeting to pay off bonds.
To many taxpayers, that’s a good thing. The commissioners were keeping taxes as low as possible during recessionary times. Surely, if voters approved a higher sales tax, we could trust commissioners to cut the property tax rate as promised.
Remember, though, commissioners come and go. Always the people in control believe they are doing what is best for taxpayers — they just have different ideas about what that might be. So they reverse past boards’ decisions — reneg, in other words.
Paying off bond issues is not the only area where they have been known to change course. A year ago, commissioners committed to financing up to $6 million for a school central office. That signed agreement is also in question now. It was not binding.
“Not binding” might be what voters say as they vote people in and out of office. Any agreement from county commissioners is only good until the next election. That’s a fact of political life — and an important footnote to any promises at referendum time.