Editorial: A tough sell … at any time

Published 12:00 am Monday, September 8, 2008

There’s probably never a favorable time to ask voters whether they want to raise their own taxes. But this would be a particularly gloomy time to ask Rowan County residents whether they want to raise the sales tax by a quarter of one percent.
The sales tax increase is one of two options the General Assembly recently gave counties to raise additional revenue. The other was a land transfer tax, which was heavily opposed by the N.C. Association of Realtors.
As described in a Sunday article in the Post, County Commission Chairman Arnold Chamberlain favored putting the sales-tax increase before voters but couldn’t muster the support of two other commissioners. It’s doubtful it would have fared any better with voters at large, given current economic concerns and the experience of other counties where the tax increase referendum has gone down to defeat even when local officials have had ample time to coordinate campaigns laying out their arguments to support it.
In giving local governments the option of seeking voter approval for the additional sales and transfer taxes, state legislators, in effect, acknowledged that communities need new sources of income. It’s estimated that the quarter-cent sales tax increase would bring in about $2.5 million additional revenue for Rowan County.
For property owners and others who believe the county needs to find new sources of income to avoid raising property taxes, the sales-tax increase holds appeal as a viable option. And Chamberlain is on the right track when he advocates designating the major portion of the proceeds for improving technology in schools. That’s an investment that can pay dividends.
On the other side, opponents of sales-tax increases argue that they function regressively, taking a bigger bite from lower-income residents, and the revenue stream isn’t as predictable as property taxes.
Those issues need to be thoroughly hashed out before putting anything on the ballot. For this initiative to succeed, voters would have to be convinced that the tax increase is necessary, that it will help hold the line on property taxes and that it is the most equitable way to increase revenue. That will take some doing รณ even when voters are feeling more optimistic.