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Not many people went to both the Berger campaign event at the downtown Marriott on Tuesday night and the Walker campaign celebration at Life Community Church on Wendover Avenue.


To say it was like night and day would not adequately describe the difference in the two events.


Paying More In Sales Tax

Not As Good As It Sounds

June 26, 2014

Now that the Guilford County Board of Commissioners has voted 7 to 2 to put a quarter-cent sales tax increase on the ballot in November, two big questions linger: Will advocates of a higher sales tax be able to sell the increase to county voters, and exactly what should be done with the estimated additional $14 million in new revenue that raising the sales tax from 6.75 cents on the dollar to 7 cents would bring?


Those questions are intertwined because the main way advocates of the tax will attempt to sell it to the people is by touting that the proceeds will be used for education.


The truth, however, is this: The current Board of Commissioners and the advocates for raising the sales tax can offer no guarantees whatsoever as to how the money will be spent.  The current commissioners can make promises until they are blue in the face and the cows come home, but, if the tax increase passes, even the very first Board of Commissioners that decides what to do with the money will be a much different board than the board making the promises.  In December, the nine-member board will have at least three new members and possibly four.  Those commissioners would have made no promises whatsoever about the new revenues.


Guilford County Attorney Mark Payne said it’s common for boards of commissioners to adopt resolutions stating the intent for new sales tax increase proceeds whenever a tax increase is put on the ballot, but he said that, in the end, that commitment is not legally binding on boards of commissioners.


“It is true that, as the years go by, different boards can change their minds,” Payne said.


The quarter-cent sales tax option has been on the ballot twice before in Guilford County.  In 2008, it was soundly defeated.  However, in 2010 it only lost by a percentage point.  Advocates of higher school spending are now hoping the third time’s a charm.


Guilford County Commissioners Hank Henning and Jeff Phillips were the two who voted against the sales tax increase at the Thursday, June 19 meeting when the board approved the measure.  Both men expressed their concern that future boards would be able to use the money for whatever purpose they want.


Phillips said, “You cannot indicate on the ballot that these funds will be appropriated to schools specifically.”  He added, “There is a risk that, if passed, a future board could redirect those funds in a much different manner, one this board would not agree with.”


Both Henning and Phillips also pointed out that even the current Board of Commissioners got the cart before the horse in this vote – because the current board hasn’t really even decided among itself what the promise for the money should be.


In recent weeks, the commissioners have discussed possibly promising the potential proceeds for school capital projects, for school operating funds, to pay off school debt or to help fund Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) in addition to the schools.


The Guilford County Board of Education wants there to be one stated purpose and one only: That the money will go to Guilford County public schools for any use the schools see fit.  So the school board members and the commissioners could find themselves very much at odds in the coming weeks as they meet to discuss, if the increase passes, how the money should be used – or rather, how the highly breakable promise to the voters of Guilford County should be worded.


Another possibility is that future Boards of Commissioners could keep the promise of the current board in word but not in spirit.  Commissioners could give an amount of money equivalent to the sales tax revenue increase to the schools and simultaneously cut the usual school funding from the county by an equal amount – keeping the amount of school funding even – and keeping the promise of sending the money to education and giving themselves an additional $14 million or so to play with in each county budget.


Henning said he opposed putting the tax on the ballot right now because a tax increase should always be a last resort.  He said that the right thing to do, if the commissioners want to give the schools more money, would be to find ways to cut elsewhere in Guilford County government.


“I’m not sure we have really done our part to see where we can trim to give money to the schools,” Henning said.


One easy place to cut that not a single taxpayer would complain about would be to cut the amount of money the commissioners put in the county savings account.   This year the commissioners could have given the school $14 million more and reduced the amount going into the savings account from $26 million to $12 million, a move unlikely to have drawn complaints from taxpayers.


Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Bill Bencini said he isn’t too worried about the money going to a purpose other than education in Guilford County.  He said that, if the county commissioners promise the money will be used for education and then stray from that commitment, there’s a highly vocal contingent of school advocates who will call future commissioners out on that broken promise.  Bencini said local politics is a little different than state politics and it would be harder for county commissioners to go back on a promise than it would be for state legislators to do so.


Commissioner Bruce Davis had a suggestion for those who wanted to help sell the referendum to the voters.  Davis said advocates of the sales tax increase would be wise to talk to Sheriff BJ Barnes because Barnes somehow managed to get a jail bond passed by county voters in 2008 – even though several commissioners were adamantly against it.  Not to mention that inmates are much less popular than school children.


“You got to market it; you’ve got to fight for it,” Davis advised.




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