Voters will weigh in on quarter-cent Sales Tax increase in March

The Alamance County Commissioners, in a contested 4-1 vote, approved a measure last week that will place a Sales Tax measure on the spring 2020 ballot. Supporters of the proposed quarter-cent sales tax rate increase are hopeful that their message - that a Sales Tax is fairer than property tax increases that only impact local homeowners - will resonate with Alamance County voters, who have been reticent in recent years to enact additional sales taxes within the county. 

At last week’s Alamance County Commissioners meeting, the elected board voted 4-1 to place a quarter-cent tax measure on the March spring primary ballot. All revenues from the quarter-cent sales tax would go towards reducing Alamance County’s property tax rate, which was raised by more than seven cents per 100 dollars of assessed value in the 2019-20 county budget to begin the first phase of bond funding for the Alamance-Burlington School System and Alamance Community College’s new construction projects. 

The Commissioners had a lively debate about the proposed sales tax, with Steve Carter, Bill Lashley, Amy Scott Galey, and Eddie Boswell ultimately voting in favor of the measure, and Commissioner Tim Sutton voting against it. Lashley made the motion in support of the sales tax. 

If passed, the quarter-cent sales tax increase would provide Alamance County nearly $5 million a year in annual revenue that would be used to offset property taxes, while also helping ensure that the county would not have to raise property taxes even more down the line to pay for bond-related debts. 

“We do not want to have to put any more property tax revenue into the (bond) plan,” Alamance County Commissioner Bryan Hagood said. “We don’t want the Commissioners to have to raise property taxes any more to pay for the debt.” 

The Commissioners know full well that Alamance County voters have voted three times this decade to reject a proposed sales tax, including most recently in the fall of 2018. 

But with the prospect of high progressive turnout in the upcoming Democratic primary election, local leaders are hopeful that the county will consider a tradeout of property tax revenue, which comes entirely from Alamance County citizens, in favor of a sales tax structure that balances out the tax commitment to all local citizens, as well as tourists who come through Alamance County. 

“The one thing I’ve heard more negative comments on since we’ve brought this up in the community has been the sales tax,” Commissioner Steve Carter stated. “I’m not afraid to say it, but I don’t know why they don’t look at the benefit. But they don’t. I know - I don’t like taxes. But it’s one of the fairest taxes we can levy. It’s the absolute fairest tax.”

“That’s why I think we need to lower the tax rate for the property owners. The taxpayers,” Lashley said in response. “

“The hardest part for us is once we approve this, we’ve got two people sitting up here who are going to leave us,” Carter said, referring to outgoing County Commissioners Eddie Boswell and Tim Sutton. 

“That’s why we get the big bucks,” Lashley said. 

Commissioner Carter noted that Alamance County stands to have a significant portion of its increased sales tax revenue, in case the measure passes, come from visitors. As a freeway county, Alamance County benefits from the thousands of daily commuters coming through the area along I-40 and I-85. 

“It was presented with the bonds that 60 percent of our sales tax revenue comes from outside the county,” Carter said. “In North Carolina, we’re ranked eighth in visitor spending in the state. The dollars outside visitor spending in Alamance County, was $190.3 million. Now, all we have to do is look at that, and compare it to what gross revenues are, and that tells us what the actual percentage of the sales tax that is coming in from outside the county. Whatever percentage that is, that means somebody else is paying our bills.” 

“Lots of times we’re paying it anyway,” said Commissioner Amy Scott Galey. “Because you buy something that is a dollar, you don’t pay $1.0675. They round it up to $1.07. Now, I don’t know what happens to that extra quarter-cent. Does it stay with the merchant, or does the state get it? But I know we’re paying it. I would like to see that stay in Alamance County. If I’m paying it, I would like to see it be used for the benefit of our people.”

Sutton, the lone Commissioner to vote against placing the sales tax measure on the spring ballot, suggested that it was more transparent to the voters placing the vote in the November general election, when voter turnout is at its highest.  

“I’m going to try to be nice as best I can be. I’m not going to name names. I’m not going to point fingers,” Sutton said. “My position is transparency. I support 100 percent a swapout of sales tax versus property tax. Here, I think it’s good that we could reduce taxes. I would heavily tell the public to vote for it, because you are going to have a reduction in your property tax. But to me, the primary goal is transparency.” 

“Why are we doing it now versus in a general election? When we know the numbers are going to be higher? More of the electorate is going to come out?” Sutton added. “I’ve heard the explanations - if we do it now, the quicker we can get the reduction in the property tax. I hear that. But as I’ve said, to me, that’s a red herring. You’re pulling that out across the debate trail, trying to get the people to go over with you to vote on it, in a non-general election.” 

“I think in order for the best government to be run - and business, for that matter - is to put your best foot forward. Be honest, be transparent, and tell it like it is. To me, our best foot forward, is not putting it in in a cycle of where, in my opinion, we think we can get it approved the easiest.” 

“I can’t get in the mind and heart and soul of anybody on this board except for me,” the longtime County Commissioner continued. “I’ve always believed sitting here that people position stuff for success, or they position stuff for ease and the least of challenges. And to me, I can’t feel like I’m being transparent if I knew we’re not putting it on the ballot in November when we know more people are going to come out - good or bad - whether they’re going to be the so-called ‘deplorables’ or not. You may see a backlash. We may get more people out that might favor this in November than you would (in the spring).  

“And they’ll get a property tax reduction,” Lashley said in response to Sutton. 

“That’s just how you have to weigh your vote,” Sutton said to his colleague. “My vote is transparency. And I honestly think the push for this is that it will be easier, in some people’s minds - I think - if we do it now versus (the fall), there will be more private interests voting in my opinion. So I can’t vote for anything other than the general election. And I said that from the very beginning. I’m not backing off that at all. I just think that’s the most transparent I can be. I know I’m going to get out-voted on this, but I’ll be able to sleep okay.” 

For the Commissioners who voted for the measure, it seemed to come down to one simple thing - the opportunity to lower property taxes in time for the 2020-21 fiscal year budget, which will begin July 1 next year. 

“I don’t feel like I’m gaming the system. I want to see my taxes cut. And I want to see the property taxes for the people in the county cut,” Galey stated. “I guess there’s an idea that maybe it has a better chance of passing in the primary because it’s expected to be a high Democratic turnout because of the nature of the Democratic Presidential race. But Democrats, my understanding is Democrats don’t like sales taxes. They see sales tax as being regressive. They made it pretty clear from their Presidential campaigns that they feel strongly that people with property should pay a higher share of the tax burden.” 

“I just think the best thing for the county and for the taxpayers of the county would be if we could lower taxes in June of 2020, instead of waiting until June of 2021. That’s why I support Mr. Lashley’s motion,” Galey continued. 

“The issue to me is not timing, other than the fact that if we get it done in March, we can get it on the budget in 2021-22,” added Carter. “For the people in Alamance County subsisting on a fixed income, who own their home and are paying property taxes, this is one way to offer them some property tax relief.” 

“That’s right,” said Lashley.