Effort to put sales tax measure on ballot stalls

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Jessie Burchette
Rowan County voters almost got to see a quarter-cent local sales tax referendum on the November ballot.
Arnold Chamberlain, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, recently disclosed he tried to get the tax issue on the ballot to let voters decide.
He wanted to use a chunk of the money raised for technology for schools ó laptops for elementary age children.
And he wanted to earmark $250,000 a year for farmland preservation as matching funds for federal, state or private grants.
But after initial support from some of his fellow commissioners, he couldn’t muster the three votes to put it on the ballot.
The deadline for getting the measure on the Nov. 4 ballot is past.
Commissioner Jon Barber, who routinely votes with Chamberlain, confirmed he was the third vote to block the effort, joining commissioners Jim Sides and Tina Hall.
The issue or discussion never made it to a meeting. Chamberlain needed three votes to add it to the July meeting agenda and couldn’t get them.
Barber said he doesn’t oppose the sales tax, just the timing. He said Friday that he had tried to get it on the agendas for the commissioners’ retreat in February, hoping to get consensus and launch a nine-month campaign to convince voters to approve the tax.
“I told Arnold it won’t pass with the economy the way it is,” Barber said. “It won’t pass.”
Chamberlain cited the sales tax effort during a recent meeting between county commissioners and members of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education focusing on a central office for the school system.
Chamberlain said the quarter-cent would bring in an estimated $2.5 million, equal to almost a 2.5-cent property tax increase. He stressed that it would represent a new revenue source for the county instead of continuing to increase the burden on property owners.
His proposal would have earmarked $500,000 for school technology, “putting laptops or computers in young hands, making laptops available to elementary school children,” he said.
Chamberlain said last week that if the county wants to deal with dropouts and the graduation rate, that could be one small step to turning it around.
He estimated it would take a couple of years to get computers to all elementary students, and then the focus could be on providing computers to middle and high school students.
Chamberlain, who has four grandchildren, said having a computer today for school is like having pencils, paper and notebooks when he was in school.
Barber and Sides agree with Chamberlain that the quarter-cent tax is an option that the county will likely have to consider in the future. But Sides said it would take a good argument before he would consider putting it on the ballot.
“It’s a viable option, a revenue stream that helps us avoid property tax (increases),” Barber said, pointing out the county has a lot of building needs.
Chamberlain called the quarter-cent sales tax a no-brainer. “Everybody pays it, residents, non-residents, legals and illegal, everybody helps pay as opposed to property owners,” he said.
Opting not to run for re-election, Chamberlain will leave the board in December. But he continues to be concerned about the county and the challenges it faces.
“No doubt, we will face another school bond to build schools. Our job is to provide capital needs for the schools,” Chamberlain said, adding that it is time for commissioners to “stop beating up the school system.”
“In order for us to supply the money (for school buildings) if we keep beating them up, I’m not sure it will happen.”
Chamberlain reiterated a comment he made at the joint meeting with school officials, saying commissioners are elected to make decisions that include building a central office for the school system and a jail ó two projects that would likely never be approved by voters in a referendum.
Chamberlain also clarified his position on farmland preservation: “I’m very much in favor of open space. I’m just not in favor of providing it with everybody’s taxes.”
Instead he proposed using sales tax dollars as matching funds for a farmland preservation program targeting small farmers.
In addition to the proposals for technology and farmland preservation, Chamberlain favored committing about $1 million to pay debt service for major building projects. He also proposed to reduce property taxes by a half-cent.
Chamberlain noted that the breakdown of proposed expenditures would not appear on the ballot, but commissioners could publicly commit to how the money would be spent.
Sides said commissioners could commit, the tax could be approved and then the current board or another board could choose how to spend the money.
Voters would be asked to vote yes or no on the tax.