By Catharin Shepard
Acting on a request from the school board, the Hoke County Board of Commissioners took the first step Monday in potentially raising the local sales tax by half a cent to fund construction of a third campus at Hoke High.
The board unanimously approved a resolution asking the North Carolina General Assembly’s support for a local referendum on the proposed half-cent sales tax increase. The money generated by the sales tax increase would be used to help pay for a proposed third campus at Hoke County High School, estimated to cost $58 million. Another $6 million would go toward paying for additional construction at several other county schools.
The county has been in touch with state Rep. Garland Pierce, state Rep. Ken Goodman and state Sen. Ben Clark to request they file and support the sales tax bill in the General Assembly. Pierce said Tuesday he and Goodman have filed the bill for consideration.
The state legislature must approve the bill before the county can consider it and potentially put the proposed sales tax increase on the ballot this November. If state legislators approve the bill allowing the referendum, the matter comes back to the commission for its final decision. If approved at the state and local levels, then Hoke voters will decide in the General Election this fall whether to pass the sales tax increase.
The half-cent sales tax increase is one of two proposed tax adjustments to pay for building the third campus at Hoke High. The school system also proposed a five-cent ad valorem tax increase, though initial numbers presented to the school board as possible debt schedule plans ranged lower and higher than five cents. The county commissioners can raise property taxes without the matter going before citizens for their vote, but the board must hold public hearings on the budget.
Board of Education members, school board attorney Nick Sojka and Superintendent Dr. Freddie Williamson appeared before the commission at its regularly scheduled meeting Monday night to seek commissioners’ support for the project. The board presented a resolution, draft bill and example of how the matter might be presented on a ballot for voters this fall.
School board member Rosa McAllister-McRae addressed the commission in support of the project.
“What we’re doing tonight is a necessary first step to proceed to the legislators so they can approve the half-cent to be put on the ballot in November so the people in Hoke County can vote,” she said.
Sojka promoted the project as continuing the county’s efforts to pursue innovative approaches.
“You’ve got that beautiful new landmark middle school out there, Sandy Grove Middle School, that is a living testament to how innovative this county is and really the unprecedented cooperation between these two boards,” he said. “Folks talk about that in other places but here you all live it, so I commend you for that.”
Commissioner Harry Southerland asked Sojka to clarify the proposed sales tax increase.
“The goal is that, if it’s approved, it would always be used for educational purposes or some type of capital outlay involving the schools, is that correct?” he asked.
“That’s correct, Commissioner Southerland,” Sojka said. The draft bill included a sample ballot question that specifies that the money would “be used exclusively, the word used here is only, for school construction, renovation, purchase of land or facilities for schools and to pay debt thus incurred by the county for these purposes,” he said.
“The intent of the legislation I think is clear and the ballot question that’s proposed here, I believe is also clear,” Sojka said.
Due to the time of adoption, if approved, the sales tax increase would begin collection for part of the 2017 fiscal year and collect in full in 2018.
The process still has to come back to the commissioners if the state legislators approve it, Commissioner Tony Hunt confirmed.
“Basically, all we’re doing tonight is sending this resolution forward asking that it be put on as a bill and see what the outcome is going to be, and then it would come back at the local level if it passes, then all the approval would be here at this level,” he said.
The timing for getting the resolution before the commissioners was driven by the legislative schedule, Sojka said.
“They have filing deadlines and that’s a big reason why we appreciate you all having us on your agenda this evening,” he said.
Commissioner Bobby Wright made a motion to approve the resolution and Hunt seconded it.
“I’m always the last one to vote for a tax increase but I honestly think this is needed to help pay for some of this stuff that we’ve got to do for the schools, so I make a motion to approve it,” Wright said. Hunt seconded it. The motion passed unanimously.
The Board of Education previously approved the resolution at a meeting earlier this year.
If the board decides to include a property tax increase in the 2015-2016 fiscal year budget, the proposal will be written into the draft budget later this spring.
The Hoke High campus would include new facilities like a gym with a swimming pool, a cafeteria, space for science and technology classrooms and other features. The proposed projects are meant to address overcrowding in the school system.