Quarter-cent sales tax increase vote added to May 6 primary ballot

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By Brian Slattery

BOLIVIA — Brunswick County voters will decide on a quarter-cent county sales tax increase after commissioners approved a referendum to add to the May 6 primary election ballot.

The decision was made at a special called meeting Monday that county staff announced Thursday, Feb. 20.

The vote was not unanimous. The referendum passed 4-1 with Commissioner Frank Williams opposing the measure.

“This came up quick. It was only on my radar one week ago,” Williams said.

He commented on the short notice for the meeting, saying he thought “more people would be here.”

Williams also said he thought a vote during the primary election would draw fewer voters than adding it to the general election ballot.

Following the meeting, Williams emailed this statement about the referendum: “My vote against this proposal should not be misinterpreted as a vote against funding our schools or against supporting our coastal communities. While I strongly support our public schools and absolutely believe that the county must play a role in protecting our shoreline, I have several concerns about this proposal. First, this came about very quickly, and decisions like this should not be rushed. Second, I have concerns about placing this referendum on the ballot in a primary election rather than a general election. Third, I believe we should exhaust all other options before considering a tax increase of any kind, even one that is ultimately put in the hands of voters in the form of a referendum.”

Commissioner Marty Cooke said the board is not making a determination to raise anyone’s taxes, but giving the decision to the voters.

Commissioner Pat Sykes echoed his view by saying her campaign platform was against raising, and she was not going against that by supporting the referendum because it lets citizens decide to add the quarter-cent sales tax.

Commissioner Scott Phillips said he supported the vote to increase the sales tax because of the focus on beaches and schools.

“I support this. It may seem like cherry picking different things to pay for, but this is where the needs are,” Phillips said.

Chairman Phil Norris said Brunswick County’s tax rate is as low as it is because of the value of tourism to the beaches. He said if beach values go down because the county isn’t meeting the beach community needs, taxes will go up.

He said he preferred to share the cost with Brunswick County’s visitors than put it all on residents.

“Rather than pay through property taxes, we can pay with sales tax,” Norris said.

“This is an opportunity to save me money. If we put it on the ballot, I’m going to vote for it.”

Taxes versus needs

County Manager Ann Hardy explained the state’s General Assembly authorized county boards of commissioners to levy a quarter-cent county sales and use tax, contingent on an advisory referendum in which the majority of those casting ballots voted for the levy of the tax.

“I know that members of this board have made it clear that you are not in favor of raising taxes,” she said. “What we are bringing to you today is the opportunity to make the public aware of the critical needs of our beach community and instructional classroom capital outlay needs so that they may decide if the additional sales tax is the best way to met these needs.”

Hardy said the county tax rate of 44.25 cents does not provide the needed funds to assist the beach communities with dredging, beach renourishment, public beach access and terminal groin construction or meet the capital needs of the school system.

“The additional quarter-cent sales tax would share the cost for these needs with both residents and visitors to the county,” she said.

The current combined state and local options sales tax in Brunswick County is 6.75 percent, Hardy said.

“At 6.75 percent sales tax rate, Brunswick County sales tax is one-quarter of a cent less than New Hanover (County). The rate in North Myrtle beach is eight percent and nine percent in Myrtle Beach. The problem is the state and the federal governments are reducing and eliminating funding for essential projects such as dredging and beach renourishment. Such things now fall to the county and the municipalities,” she said.

“Economic development of our beach and island communities is important to the entire county. Dredging and beach renourishment is necessary to protect the valuable tourist economy of the county.”

Hardy said Brunswick County Schools has assessed critical capital needs of more than $100 million.

“The county is continuing to pay the debt on the 1999 voter approved bond referendum with payments in excess of $5 million annually through 2020. It is hoped that this quarter-cent sales tax revenue could delay the need for another school bond referendum to closer to the time when the current debt will be paid off,” she said.

Hardy said after the board meeting the quarter-cent sales tax increase would bring in an additional $3 million a year.

The sales tax would grow over time as sales increase within the county, estimated at 3 to 5 percent per year.

The resolution designates that 50 percent of the collected quarter-cent proceeds will be designated for beach community needs: dredging, beach renourishment, public beach access or terminal groins.

“Some years, if the needs are low the money would stay in a fund. Other years funding would be available when projects are available,” Hardy said.

The other 50 percent collected would be designated for repair, renovation or construction of school facilities, not for central office administrative facilities.

“Each year the commissioners would receive priority needs,” Hardy said.

Public comments

Before the board members voted on the referendum, Norris opened a public comment period. He received comments from four elected officials, a town manager and a private citizen, who was the only one to voice opposition to the referendum and quarter-cent sales tax proposal.

Calvin Peck, Bald Head Island village manager, said when the Wilmington shipping channel was realigned in 2000, there was supposed to be no cost to his town. But the town has since spent $25 million on sand replenishment and groins and is preparing its own referendum on spending $18 million on a terminal groin.

“The bottom line is, we need help,” Peck said.

Colleen Combs, a Southport resident, called for commissioners to look for another option to a tax increase.

“It’s a bad time to raise sales taxes. You should find a different way,” Combs said.

When Norris asked her if she had an opinion on how they should find a different way, Combs had one to offer.

“It seems all (government) bodies have a budget. If beach rebuilding is the priority, budget for it,” Combs said. She said if the beach is the priority, other items need to be eliminated, such as parks and recreation programs.

John Thompson, chairman of the Brunswick County Board of Education, said Brunswick County Schools have substantial facility needs. If the referendum is approved by the public, the “relatively small increase will help defer (spending) for a few years,” he told the commissioners.

“There are $20 million to 30 million in growth needs alone we will have to add in the next few years,” he said.

Without the referendum, Thompson said, he could be back before the county board soon to ask for the $20 million.

Ocean Isle Beach Mayor Debbie Smith and Holden Beach Mayor Alan Holden both spoke to the board in support of the referendum, but said they were speaking as individuals, not town representatives.

“Supporting a tax increase is difficult, Smith said.

But she promoted both aims of the sales tax increase, saying nothing is more important than educating Brunswick’s youth and the beach communities are serious economic drivers for the county.

Smith also wanted to ensure the resolution’s statement that 50 percent of the collected quarter-cent sales tax proceeds identified for beach community needs include funding public access and public parking.

“As a lifelong resident, I feel I have a reasonably good grasp on good ideas. This is a good idea. We can’t come up with a better idea than this at this time. I support it wholeheartedly,” Holden said.

Carolina Shores Mayor Walter Goodenough said he last talked to the board during the ad valorem tax change to the sales tax distribution discussion. After the board said it had to find a better way than ad valorem taxes, he said he was glad it found an alternative with the proposed quarter-cent sales tax referendum.

Combs said she attended after hearing about the meeting over the weekend.

“I was a little surprised. Here was so much support in favor and just me (as a) citizen here. That has to do with the short notice.”

She was disappointed with the with the proposal and officials’ response to it.

“It’s always the same. It’s always a good cause,” Combs said. “It’s always a higher burden on the taxpayers. My question is, when is enough enough?”

Brian Slattery is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or bslattery@brunswickbeacon.com.