Carolina Journal News Reports
GREENSBORO — Forgive the baseball analogy — the pennant races are winding down, after all — but the Guilford County Board of Commissioners is at the plate, down two strikes with the bases loaded. They’re swinging for the fences, but they’d better be prepared for a changeup from voters.
For the third time in two years, commissioners have placed a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the ballot, this time for the November midterm elections. Back in August commissioners voted 9-1 to put the tax increase on the ballot, with Commissioner Steve Arnold casting the only “no” vote. (Commissioner Kay Cashion was absent, but had expressed support for the increased sales tax.)
Voters have rejected the sales tax twice. It was on the ballot for both the May 2008 primary and the November 2008 general election.
Those results are not without irony, however. In 2008 voters also approved more than $500 million in bonds, adding to a county debt load that will reach $1 billion in 2011-12.
Thus the need for a sales tax increase, says commission chairman Skip Alston.
Citizens “were told that if they approved the bonds for the schools and the jails, it would result in a tax increase,” Alston said in a phone interview. “It was publicized very well. They voted for the bonds, but they voted down the funding stream to help pay for those bonds.”
Arnold, who serves as commission vice chair, could not be reached for comment. But he parts ways with his chairman on the sales tax, stating during public debate on the issue that he believes “government is too big and taxes are too high.”
Commissioners have not increased property taxes the last two years. Under leadership of Alston and Arnold, the board cut several county jobs in an effort to reduce the county budget.
Alston says there’s still more fat to be cut from the budget, but it seemed inevitable that commissioners would have to take more drastic action given the debt load, which included a $115 million bond for a new county jail, and $457 million in school bonds.
Alston added that he’s meeting Guilford County Schools Superintendent Mo Green and school board chairman Alan Duncan about managing debt over the coming years.
Commissioners have sparred with Guilford County Schools over the years about spending on new school construction. A $300 million bond passed by voters in 2003 was badly managed, and funding ran out before the project used to sell the bond to voters — a new Jamestown Middle School — could even be started. But none of this stopped commissioners from placing the bond that again included the new Jamestown school on the ‘08 ballot.
A separate $45 million bond for a new Eastern Guilford High School also appeared on the ballot after the school was destroyed by fire in November 2006.
School officials decided to push for the bond when they discovered insurance would not cover the cost of rebuilding the school.
GCS also has had other issues with school construction costs. The so-called “green” Northern Guilford Middle School (see PDF “case study” here) not only ran over budget, but also, according to published news reports, is not using energy as efficiently as school officials claimed it would.
Also, a proposed school in the western part of the county near Piedmont Triad International Airport originally was estimated to cost $88 million — which would have made it the most expensive high school ever built in the state. Costs have been trimmed, however, although GCS still must buy land in an area surrounding the airport that has been targeted for economic development.
The new high school now is estimated to cost $72 million, not much cheaper than the new Watauga County High School, which cost $79 million and is the state’s most expensive school.
A recent John Locke Foundation policy report made the case that Watauga County pushed for a quarter-cent sales tax hike at least in part to pay for the new high school.
Although Watauga commissioners stated the $1.9 million in revenue that would be generated through the sales tax hike would go toward “recreational facilities,” the study notes that the revenue could go toward any “legal purpose,” including debt service on the new school.
In the Aug. 31 special election, Watauga voters overwhelmingly turned down the sales tax hike. Proponents hoped the special election would enhance the pro-tax turnout the same way it did in Randolph County, where voters approved a quarter-cent sales tax hike in a special March election.
In contrast, Guilford commissioners believe that placing the sales tax on the ballot during regularly scheduled elections — when voter turnout is expected to be higher — will increase the chances of the tax hike passing.
With that in mind, Alston will form a committee to campaign for the sales tax. Alston added the campaign will “include yard signs, billboards, ads — the whole works.”
Sam A. Hieb is a contributor to Carolina Journal.