Will Moore County taxpayers support a quarter-cent sales tax increase to help build new schools?
That question will be answered on March 1, when the Presidential Primary ballot will also include an opportunity to vote for or against a "local sales and use tax at the rate of one-quarter percent (0.25%) in addition to all other state and local taxes."
If the voters approve, the new tax will add an estimated $2.2 million to County coffers in FY 2017.
The Moore County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved, during their regular Tuesday, October 20 meeting, a resolution asking Elections Director Glenda Clendenin to put the question on the March Primary ballot.
The referendum question, cannot, by law, include any statement about the intended use of the funds. But the Commissioners have made clear that they intend use most — if not all — of that new revenue to support the building of new schools.
The Commissioners and Board of Education held a joint meeting earlier in the day, and that conversation revealed a willingness on the Commissioners part to fund the first four projects on the School Board's priority list: the new Advanced Career Center near Sandhills Community College, a new elementary school in Area 1 (Carthage, Cameron, Whispering Pines, and Vass), and new elementary schools in Aberdeen and Southern Pines. [See story on page 7 for more details.]
The new voter-approved sales tax is allowed under Article 46 of Chapter 105 of the NC General Statutes.
Unlike other local sales taxes authorized by the General Statutes, Article 46 taxes are distributed to the county alone, rather than being shared with the municipalities. The tax will not be applied to purchases of groceries or gasoline.
State law prohibits the County from advocating for or against the sales tax; however, the County can spend money to educate voters about the referendum. County Manager Wayne Vest said his leadership team would "immediately begin an initiative to educate and inform the voters."
Prior to the vote , Chairman Nick Picerno recalled that he was asked, in a candidates forum during his first campaign, whether he would support an increase in the sales tax. He was the lone candidate who said he would not support an increase.
"The reason I did not support it at that time was that they had no proven reason for additional revenue. There was no excuse to raise the tax. I think we have shown over and over through our discussions with the School Board and our educational construction needs — and the way we are getting rooked by the tier system not giving us our fair share — that this is the only way that we can supply the revenue we need."
Extra state funding bypasses Moore
The "tier system" that Picerno mentioned is a state economic development rubric that divides North Carolina's counties into three tiers, from the wealthy in Tier 3 to the poorer counties in Tier 1. Tier 1 and 2 counties are eligible for a variety of economic development incentives that are not available to Tier 3 counties.
During the October 20 meeting, the Commissioners approved a resolution calling for the abolishment of the tier system.
Because of the concentration of wealth in Southern Moore County, it is ranked among Tier 3 counties, despite the poverty that exists in North Moore and elsewhere within the County's borders.
With the exception of Chatham County, home to the suburbs of Chapel Hill, all of the counties surrounding Moore are Tier 1 & Tier 2 counties.
The wealth of Southern Moore also deprives the County's schools of additional state funding that is provided to "low-wealth" counties. As a result, Moore County taxpayers must provide a far larger share of total school funding than do taxpayers in poorer counties.
To add insult to injury, the recently passed FY 2016 NC state budget expanded the scope of the sales tax, applying it to a variety of services, like auto repair. However, state legislators took the estimated $84.8 million in increased annual revenue from that expansion and spread it among 79 counties. Moore County was not among the recipients of that new revenue.
All three of members of Moore County's legislative delegation — Senator Jerry Tillman, Representative Jamie Boles, and Representative Allen McNeill, voted for that distribution as part of the budget package.
Also during their October 20 regular meeting, The Commissioners heard a presentation from the Sheriff's Office on increasing security at the Historic Courthouse, which houses not only the Commissioners' meeting room, but also the offices of the County Attorney and Tax Department.
Chief Deputy Jerrell Seawell proposed closing three of the four entrances to the building and equipping each of those entrances with card access readers for the convenience of employees. The public would enter through the West entrance, passing through a metal detector manned by a Sheriff's deputy.
The FY 2016 cost of the program was estimated to be $114,331; the annual recurring cost is expected to be $113,400.
The Commissioners were clearly committed to protecting the County employees who work in the building, but expressed concern about the cost, as well as the fact that the plan would not address the protection of employees in the County's many other facilities in Carthage.
"We are the only facility that is directly across from the courthouse over there," Commissioner Catherine Graham said, referring to the newer Moore County Courthouse across the street from the Historic Courthouse, "where we have some very unsavory people who come in and out."
"We have County Attorneys who have just participated in taking a child away from a parent, who have caused people to be put in jail as a result of failure to pay child support. There are a lot of issues that are very volatile that people have who come out over there, and they are associated with people who work in this building."
"There are a lot of people sitting in this room . . . who work in this courthouse, whose security would be of my utmost concern," Chairman Picerno said. "There is not question that we don't want any harm to come to them."
"My issue becomes: If you put security here, what are we doing for the guys down the street at DSS [the Department of Social Services], the guys at HR, the Finance Department, the Health Department, and all the other employees?"
"The biggest concern I have financially is the ongoing expense of full-time staff," Commissioner Randy Saunders said, referring to the two full-time deputies who would be needed to man the entrance. "Where does it end up stopping? It's $113,000 a year, that every year is going to go up."
Chairman Picerno asked the Commissioners to table the matter until their November 17 meeting, suggesting he would try to draw on the expertise of former military personnel and others in the local community that might have insights into alternative measures for building security.
Water rate dispute settled with Harnett County
After a brief Closed Session, the Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the settlement of a dispute with Harnett County over the rate that Moore County pays Harnett for potable water.
On September 17, 2013, the County signed an agreement with Harnett County to help fund an expansion of Harnett's water treatment plant on the Cape Fear River.
That agreement provided Moore County with the guarantee of up to three million gallons per day of water from the expanded plant, as well as reducing the rate the County was paying for that water. Moore County agreed to pay $3.5 million for the guaranteed capacity.
Moore County believed the rate reduction was to take effect immediately up on the signing of the agreement; Harnett County understood it was to take effect only after the plant was built.
The settlement splits the difference, by making the effective date for the new rate May 18, 2015 – the date of Moore County's first $875,000 payment to Harnett toward the new plant construction costs. That resulted a refund of $46,590 to Moore County. In addition, Moore County agreed to accelerate its future payments toward the plant construction costs, a total of $2.625 million, completing that payment within thirty days of the signing of the settlement agreement.
In other business during their regular Tuesday, October 20 meeting, the Moore County Board of Commissioners:
• Heard a presentation from the Health Department on a proposed $201,604 contract with Advanced Imaging Systems for the scanning of the department's paper records into its Patagonia Health electronic health record system.
• Held a public hearing on Monarch’s application for a FY 2017 state Grant for the Enhanced Mobility of Seniors and Individuals with Disabilities. Monarch uses the grant, which amounted to $40,000 last year, to provide transportation for thirteen clients with intellectual and development disabilities to a Southern Pines program called the Creative Arts Community Center. Monarch uses Moore County Transportation Services [MCTS] for the program.
• Held a public hearing on and approved MCTS's application for a $209,382 FY 2017 Community Transportation Program grant that will provide for the purchase of two new buses and a repeater station to improve radio communications.
• Approved the 2015 System Safety Program Plan for MCTS, meeting a state requirement.
• Approved MCTS's FY 2016 Rural Operating Assistance Program application for $202,562 in state funds that support the transport of elderly and disabled residents, those who need transportation to work, and rural residents.
• Called a public hearing for November 17 for a Conditional Use Permit application for a new veterinary office in an existing building in Seven Lakes Business Village.
• Approved a $3,797 change order to a contract with Gilbert Engineering for the rehabilitation of sewer Lift Station 3‐4.
• Rejected a bid for a bar rake for the Water Pollution Control Plant.
• Approved the renewal of a mutual aid agreement with Fort Bragg.
• Approved the purchase of two ambulances chassis that will be fitted with ambulance boxes from existing County ambulances. The cost is not to exceed $241,727.
• Authorized the Sheriff's Office to add a full time Drug Diversion Investigator to combat prescription drug abuse. The County has obtained a Governor's Crime Commission grant that will cover the full seventy-five percent of the $86,515 cost of the position in the first year.
• Approved an amendment to the funding agreement with Sandhills Center reducing the remaining portion due in February by $21,629 — the twenty-five percent local match required for a Governor’s Crime Commission grant.