Tax increase big issue on ballot
Quarter-cent increase would fund jail annex, communications
By Emily Ford
Rowan County commissioners have rolled their top two public safety needs ó a new jail annex and extensive telecommunications upgrades ó into one referendum that will appear on the ballot countywide.
Voters will decide Tuesday whether to increase the county sales tax by one-quarter cent, or one penny for every $4 at the cash register.
The county must find about $20 million, or $2 million a year for 10 years, to fund the projects, according to County Manager Gary Page.
If voters reject the sales tax increase Tuesday, the county will be forced to cut the budget by $2 million annually, Page said. Commissioners have ruled out the other alternative, a 2-cent property tax hike.
The choices come down to layoffs and cutting nonessential services such as parks, museums and libraries, Page said.
Proponents of the sales tax increase face long odds. Across North Carolina, only five out of 35 proposed sales tax increases have passed in two years, Page said.
The $6 million jail annex already has encountered opposition, even though county commissioners have yet to pick a location.
The $12 million radio upgrades have been better received.
The county must upgrade its emergency telecommunications system by 2013, or the radios that firefighters, EMS personnel, emergency dispatchers and even building inspectors use will go silent.
“Basically every public safety officer in the county who talks on a radio uses this thing,” said Rob Robinson, Rowan County 911 telecommunications director.
Robinson’s preliminary study estimates Rowan County will need three new towers, in addition to the single tower now in use. The county could need more than 1,000 new digital radios.
The changes are mandated in part by the Federal Communications Commis-sion and the fact that the current analog radio system will be obsolete by 2013.
Authorities expect the digital conversion to make the county’s already spotty radio coverage even worse.
“We already have numerous dead spots in the county with absolutely no coverage,” said John Morrison, president of the Rowan County Fire and Rescue Association. “Two tower sites would drastically improve, and three towers would give us major coverage.”
The current tower stands at Al’s Knob in Granite Quarry. The county proposes new towers, each about 300 feet tall, at Young Mountain in Cleveland in the west and Pooletown in the southeast.
The county needs a third tower near Enochville in the south, but Page said he hopes Cabarrus County will build a tower nearby and Rowan can rent space on it, saving close to $1.5 million.
The additional towers would boost coverage for another piece of emergency communications equipment: pagers.
While public safety radios in Rowan County use the 800 megahertz system, pagers that alert volunteer firefighters to a fire or medical call still use the older VHF system.
In 2013, when the 800 system goes digital, the federal government will narrow the band for the VHF system.
The new towers would hold VHF antennae to increase coverage for pagers.
“If we don’t have more tower sites out there in the far reaches, their pagers will stop working,” Morrison said. “If the pagers don’t work, we won’t need to talk on our new digital radios because we aren’t going to know we have a call.”
Not everyone agrees that the sales tax increase is the way to finance the projects. Former commissioner Jim Sides opposes the tax.
“The projects are necessary, but they have not completely explored avenues of revenue and they have not completely explored expenses,” said Sides, who has publicly opposed the tax hike. “They haven’t done their due diligence.”
The cost of upgrading the telecommunications system could be far less than $12 million if Rowan co-locates on towers in other counties, rather than building its own, Sides said.
And the county doesn’t know yet how many new radios firefighters will need, he said. Some analog radios can be converted to digital.
Page agreed $12 million is an estimate based on a preliminary study. The county will conduct a detailed, department-to-department study soon, with results coming in April, he said.
With those results, Page will apply for Homeland Security grants and federal stimulus funds to further offset the cost, he said.
Any savings, including grants or renting instead of building towers, would go to pay down the debt more quickly, Page said.
“We want to work with whoever is out there to save the taxpayers money,” he said.
The county was forced to cut 16 jobs and freeze five more to balance this year’s budget, Page said. The cuts will not mean additional future revenue, he said.
County revenue has fallen, including sales tax, building permits and recording fees.
“I had to cut 16 positions just to offset the loss of revenue,” he said.
Commissioner Raymond Coltrain said it would take cutting 65 county jobs to generate $2 million a year.
The new jail annex will require 12 additional employees, he said.
A sales tax is fair, said Robinson, the 911 telecommunications director.
“Instead of going up on property taxes, a sales tax also collects from people who rent, people who travel through our county,” Robinson said. “We get a lot of calls for service from the interstate.”
Some citizens think the county should use the surcharge collected on telephone bills to pay for new radios, he said. But that’s illegal.
The money goes to computers, telephones and other equipment inside 911 communication centers.
People rarely vote to raise their own taxes, said Dr. Benjamin Russo, economics professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
“The sales tax has serious problems, but they are less serious at the local level than the state level,” Russo said. “The sales tax base has been eroding for 30 years because of a shift from consumption toward services, away from tangible goods.”
It can deliver in the short term, Russo said. “This is a quarter-cent, that’s hard to see. And it’s meant to be temporary,” he said.
The sales tax increase would add 25 cents to a $100 purchase.
“People hear ‘tax’ and they close their mind,” Coltrain said. “But if someone buys an item that’s $4, this will require them to pay one more penny.”
If the referendum passes, the sales tax will increase in April 2010.