The Orange County Board of Commissioners (BOCC) opened up discussion this evening of putting a %0.25 increase in local sales tax before voters in November (Levy of a One-Quarter Cent (1/4¢) County Sales and Use Tax [PDF]).

The tax, if approved, will bump our local sales tax to %8 with all the additional proceeds going directly to the county (it seems like it was mentioned several hundred times that the municipalities would get NADA from the increase). Best estimates, and only if a pending state bill is passed, has the county reaping in $500K in 2011 rising to $2.4M in 2012.

I spoke before the BOCC on the issue – raising a few concerns, suggesting a possible course of action.

I acknowledged the Commishes quandary in filling the current $9.4M hole in the County’s budget and the near certainty of dealing with an even deeper one in 2011. I recognized the appeal in making a seemingly small increase in a tax that is spread across a wider arc than property taxpayers. I understood it probably seemed an easier sell especially given the recent turmoil over our hefty property revaluations and the failed attempt to create a land transfer tax.

I also pointed out even though it doesn’t apply to food or medicines that the increase represented an additional burden on those folks living here who can least afford it (the characterization in the press that “what the heck, it’s only a few more bucks week!” really bothers me).

By its nature, it is a regressive tax.

Given that increased burden, I asked the BOCC to commit in as legally a binding way as possible, to dedicating the new revenue to funding the rapidly growing demand on social services. That revenue should bolster the existing commitment and go well beyond this year’s baseline (not to rely on it, as many counties have with the NC lottery and education).

Steve Yuhaz and a few other commissioners suggested throwing this modest amount of money – $2.5M at best – at the schools or pouring it down the current economic development rat-hole.

Spending $2.5M on needed social services would have a much more profound effect than adding to the considerable school system overhead or to funding economic incentives during this downturn. And it’s the right thing to do given the rather dire outlook for next year.

Other than clearly dedicating the use of the funds, I also asked for two additional provisions:

  • that the tax increase be time limited – maybe 3-4 years at most – in order to emphasize that this wasn’t a case of avoiding fiscal discipline but a response to some very difficult circumstances
  • that the public be given plenty of opportunity to weigh in.

At the conclusion of the topic it was clear that public input beforehand will have to come quick – June 15th to be exact.

Some quick observations/comments.

Several counties, like New Hanover, were used as success stories for the referendum. New Hanover, of course, has much lower property taxes and with its tourist draws has much greater outside revenue flows. Orange County’s increase will be borne mostly by Orange County residents.

Comments by several commissioners that this broad 1/4 percent sales tax would bring revenues in from residents not currently “paying their fair share” made very little sense given that a pretty good chunk of the existing %7.75 sales tax paid by all residents ends up in the county coffers.

It was also strange how quickly the discussion settled on two options – raise sales taxes or property taxes. The obvious third option – raise no taxes – didn’t make it onto the table.

My suggestion to time limit the measure didn’t get traction. Long time NC residents probably recall that a fair portion of the existing %7.75 sales tax was supposed to be “temporary”. Like many of the current “usage fees” and other tax burdens, government claims on our income tend to take on a life of their own and rarely get rolled-back (at least on middle and lower income folks). The rates might get adjusted but the real outlays stay the same or increase.

It’s hard to dodge the appearance that raising the sales tax rate has more to do with an inability to prioritize spending than fiscal discipline when the increase has an open-ended expiration date.

Sales tax revenue is sensitive to prevailing economic conditions. Without a dramatic upturn in the economy or a steep expansion in the County’s commercial tax base – both unlikely in the near future – the dependability of this revenue stream is not sufficient to fund core services.

Finally, the oddest arguments of the evening circulated around the reason for raising and the commitment to restrict the expenditure of the funds. Many commissioners argued (and then voted for) a course of action that essentially boiled down to this: put the referendum on the ballot with little public discussion and then invite the community to speculate on what the funds are to be used for and how firm the obligation to spend them accordingly will be.

Strange inversion.

I pushed for public participation first, a clear statement on the use of the new revenues (I lobbied for human services first, debt reduction – as County Manager Clifton pointed out – a good second) and a legally binding obligation to use the funds for that specified reason.

That way the community would have a clear idea early on as to what they would be asked to vote into being.

Feels like, at least at this point (with June 15th weeks away), public participation is an afterthought.

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