County trying to get word out on sales tax

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jail annex spurs strong reactionBy Mark Wineka
Rowan County has spent considerable time trying to educate voters about the Nov. 3 referendum on a proposed 1/4-cent sales tax increase, but its promotion budget has been nil.
“At this point,” County Manager Gary Page said Monday night, “we haven’t spent any money ó we’ve made a lot of copies.”
Page said county representatives have talked to some 30 civic groups about the referendum, which will be held countywide during this year’s municipal elections day.
County officials also will be speaking about the 1/4-cent sales tax proposal on two radio call-in shows next week. They have done a news spot on WSOC-TV, are publicizing it on Time Warner Cable’s Access 16 station and hope that the newspaper can have a story before the election, Page said.
“I think we’ve done some things to get it out there,” he added.
The local sales tax increase is aimed at raising $2 million annually over 10 years to pay for a $6 million jail annex and a $12 million conversion of the county’s public service, emergency radios from analog to digital by 2013.
Meanwhile, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners faced a room full of people Monday night from the Faith Road/Heilig Road areas of Salisbury and Granite Quarry.
They are strongly opposed to the possibility that a jail annex could go on 84 acres the county owns at that intersection.
Commissioners have received two petitions against a satellite jail’s being located at that spot.
One came from residents who live at The Gables at Kepley Farm, which is close to the corner. Jim Gandy said the county has better alternative sites to place a jail annex “than in our neighborhood.”
He asked commissioners, if their mother or father were living in The Gables, which is designed for residents 55 and older, would they want a jail nearby?
Granite Quarry resident Brian Humphreys said he has talked to many people in circulating his petition.
“I have found no one who is in favor of this,” he said.
If commissioners wanted to bring a new school or jobs to Granite Quarry, Humphreys said, that would be no problem.
But a jail gives citizens the “feeling,” whether it’s warranted or not, of not being safe, he said.
“I will lock my doors at night, if there’s a jail in Granite Quarry,” Humphreys added.
Several members of the Granite Quarry town board also were in the audience Monday but did not speak.
Because of jail overcrowding and state pressure to alleviate it, the county wants to build a 25,000-square-foot, dormitory-style facility that will house 160 inmates.
Page said Monday night a committee looking at the design of a jail annex and its possible location has only met twice.
To be as transparent as possible, Page said, he acknowledged in a newspaper report that of three county-owned sites in consideration, the Faith Road-Heilig Road site ranked first for now, just in terms of criteria such as the size of the tract and availability of water-sewer.
But he emphasized that no decision has been made, and that actually a fourth site has been proposed.
The other county-owned sites under consideration include a 10-acre tract off Airport Road on National Guard Road. The site was once targeted for a quarter-midget race track. Another 25-acre tract on the south side of Julian Road is on land currently used for fairgrounds parking.
“It’s going to be a tough job to site a jail,” Page acknowledged. “… It won’t make everybody happy.”
All county precincts will be open Nov. 3, even if the referendum is the only thing on the ballot. Early voting for the election already has begun.
Page explained Monday night that it is an “advisory referendum” in which voters will be asked to vote “for” or “against” the sales tax increase.
Even if the majority of voters say yes, the referendum is not binding, Page said.
“If you wanted to stop there,” he told commissioners, “you could.”
Commissioners would have to pass a resolution in November or December asking the N.C. Department of Revenue to start collecting the tax by April 1, 2010, Page said.
Rowan residents pay a 7.75-cent sales tax now. It would go up to 8 cents should the referendum pass and commissioners approve their resolution.
Several commissioners emphasized Monday that they have put their reputations and integrity on the line in telling citizens that the money raised by the 1/4-cent hike would be used only for the two public safety projects.
They expressed discomfort that a future board could decide to extend the tax beyond the 10 years they think the additional revenue will be needed to retire $18 million in debt, plus interest.
Commissioner Tina Hall said she cannot go back on her word. “Hopefully we can meet those needs and that’s it,” she said.
Commissioner Chad Mitchell said the county’s emergency radios will go silent if the transformation to digital equipment, including the erection of one to three new towers, is not made by 2013.
The sheriff’s Office, Rowan Rescue, EMS, 911 and fire departments will be relying on the upgrades.
In proposing that a jail annex be built outside of downtown Salisbury, the commissioners are trying to be fiscally responsible, Mitchell said. The price tag on a downtown satellite jail facility would be $30 million to $40 million, he said.
Rowan County is housing 269 inmates in its current jail, originally designed for 162 inmates. It also is paying $650,000 a year to house 35 inmates in Sampson County.
Commissioner Raymond Coltrain said the operating cost of a new jail annex housing 160 inmates would be less than the $650,000 the county is spending now for only 35 inmates in Sampson County.
Commissioners are hoping that they will be able to co-locate equipment on some existing towers and possibly not have to build as many as three new radio towers. If that happens and it experiences savings, the county might be able to pay for emergency radio upgrades for municipal police departments.
Mitchell said if the tax happened to generate more revenue than the debt it is supposed to retire, he would support using the extra funds to lower property taxes.
During a public comment period, former Rowan County Commissioner Jim Sides questioned why the 1/4-cent sales tax proposal hadn’t been better promoted. Of 50 county residents (outside municipalities) he spoke with recently, none knew they could vote Nov. 3 on the referendum, Sides said.
Sides listed several questions he had about the tax proposal and questioned whether every funding option was being explored.