After a heated, 45-minute debate, Wake County Commissioners Monday decided to vote in August on a potential November ballot sales tax referendum.
The quarter-cent sales tax increase would be used to give teachers a raise and possibly fund other education-related initiatives. Officials in Mecklenburg and Guilford counties have already approved similar referendums for November.
The county estimates that if approved, the increase could bring in an additional $27 million in revenue. Based on census data, a family with a median income of about $66,000 would see an average yearly impact of about $40.
“North Carolina is not competitive with teacher salaries within the nation; we cannot let Wake County be far behind in local supplement within our state,” Commissioner Caroline Sullivan read from a prepared statement.
She added that voters should decide if the county should increase teacher salaries.
“If they do not, we cannot levy the tax,” she said.
Last month, Commissioners approved a small raise that would increase the local supplement between $200 and $300 per teacher, adding to the base salary set by the state.
The vote for the referendum will take place at the Commission’s regular meeting Aug. 4, the last day Commissioners can issue a referendum in time for the Wake County Board of Elections to print the Nov. 4 ballots.
Questions of Timing
Commissioner Joe Bryan, a Republican whose seat is also on the November ballot, questioned why the Democratic minority wanted to wait until August to make a decision.
Sullivan said waiting until August would give the Commissioners time to get as much information as they could about the state’s budget implications.
While state leaders have vowed to increase teacher salaries, the budget and exact figures have not yet been approved. Part of the funding for the raises would come from an increase in county supplements, for which Sullivan said the county has not planned. A sales tax increase would help cover the shortfall.
Bryan, who is opposed to the tax, countered that it’s unlikely the Commission will have any additional information from the state between now and August, and challenged supporters to make a motion that night.
“We already know the base minimum is 5 percent,” Bryan said. “What information do you need?”
The state’s increase could be as high as 11 percent.
Democrat Commissioner James West accused Bryan of calling for action for political purposes.
“The plan was to make sure we got all of the information so nobody could say we rushed through the process and we just pushed this down somebody’s throat,” West said.
Bryan said the amount of the shortfall won’t be known until the fall, following an audit.
“What new information are you going to have between now and August the fourth?” he repeated.
Sullivan said the state’s decision won’t change the intent of what she’s trying to accomplish with the sales tax referendum. She added that the county will need a sustainable revenue source to pay for the state-required supplement increase.
“We’ve done everything except act like leaders,” Commissioner Betty Lou Ward said.
Ward initially took Bryan’s challenge and made a motion to approve the referendum, but withdrew it after it wasn’t seconded.
Bryan said the sales tax would continue to widen the divide between rural and urban counties. Rural counties, he said, wouldn’t be able to raise the funds necessary to be competitive.
“This is a statewide issue and it needs to be solved at a state-wide system level,” Bryan said.