Support for, against Chatham sales tax referendum often a matter of political party

Posted 2/21/20

Chatham County’s referendum asking voters if they approve a quarter-cent increase to the local sales tax rate, on primary ballots now, has brought a myriad of opinions across social media and right-of-ways and lawns from Pittsboro to Bear Creek.

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Support for, against Chatham sales tax referendum often a matter of political party

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Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series exploring the local option sales and use tax on this March’s primary ballot. You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Chatham County’s referendum asking voters if they approve a quarter-cent increase to the local sales tax rate, on primary ballots now, has brought a myriad of opinions across social media and right-of-ways and lawns from Pittsboro to Bear Creek.

Days before early voting started, the Chatham County Republican Party began posting campaign-style signs advocating a “no” vote on the referendum. Within the last week, the Chatham County Democratic Party announced on its Facebook page it would soon be posting signs in favor of the increase.

The ballot states that the vote is for a “Chatham County Local Sales and Use Tax” and asks voters to choose “For” or “Against” on this item: “Local sales and use tax at the rate of one-quarter percent (0.25%) in addition to all other State and local sales and use taxes.”

Among the county commissioners who put it on the ballot and the political parties they belong to, support for or against the measure tends to correlate with whether there’s an “R” or a “D” at the front of that party’s name.

A Republican opposition

The Chatham County GOP sponsored a post on the online forum Chatham Chatlist in late January advocating against the referendum. It claimed that the increase was “Another NO-NEED TAX INCREASE proposed by Chatham Commissioner Candidates (Mike) Dasher & (Karen) Howard.”

The party did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the post from the News + Record, but did make a statement about the referendum in its February newsletter.

“We urge you to vote against the 2nd referendum that will raise taxes in Chatham County,” the newsletter said. “This referendum raises sales taxes, but the county commissioners have stated they do not have a particular use identified for the money; this is just an opportunity to spend more tax dollars.”

Two of the statements made by the party, however, are incorrect.

First, the option was brought to the commissioners by county staff — first in January 2019 during a budget retreat. Additionally, the referendum was placed on the ballot by all five commissioners in an October 2019 vote and was not the sole responsibility of Dasher and Howard — who just so happen to be seeking re-election this year.

Second, the newsletter comment misstates that the commissioners “have stated they do not have a particular use identified for the money.” In reality, like all the surrounding counties which have this additional sales tax, the commissioners unanimously passed a resolution saying the revenue “will be used to support and enhance the County’s efforts in the areas of: Affordable Housing, Education, Parks & Recreation, and Agricultural Preservation & Enhancement.”

In a February 17 post on his “Crawford for Chatham” Facebook page, Democratic Commissioner Jim Crawford stated that future boards are allowed to “change the use of this revenue,” but “a solid BOC consensus,” including Republican Commissioner Andy Wilkie, put the referendum in place.

“There was a solid BOC consensus to increase funding for initiatives that already enjoy broad support,” Crawford said. “Commissioner Wilkie advocated for agriculture and his colleagues supported the idea.”

Democratic support

All four of the Democrats on the board of commissioners have advocated for support of the measure.

“We have seen the hardship faced by other fast-growing communities across the state which have been hesitant to take necessary measures to generate sufficient income to stay abreast of the needs of their residents,” Howard said. “As responsible leaders, we have decided to be proactive, rather than reactive.”

Dasher said correctly that each $100 purchase would only see an increase of 25 cents — but not on fuel or unprepared food like groceries — and would bring in an additional $1.6 million in revenue.

“It’s a great way to provide some additional (and ongoing) funding without increasing our property tax rate,” he said. “Anytime we can avoid doing that it’s a good thing. And the nice thing about sales tax revenue is that it’s paid by non-residents as well, so that means even less of a burden on Chatham residents.”

Board Vice Chairman Diana Hales said — echoing sentiments from Dasher and Howard — she would like to see funds go into the county’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which recently distributed its first funds to support affordable housing projects in Chatham.

“We have a list of needs that we can address with this tax in our pay-as-you-go budgeting that could be met without a property tax increase,” she said. “It is important to keep Chatham as a wonderful place to live and that depends on our rural character and the development of parks and trails.”

In a statement to the News + Record, Crawford said it was a “simple” decision.

“If voters want to fund county efforts in affordable housing, better schools, improved parks and support for agriculture they can signal it on March 3rd,” he said. “If they do not, these efforts will continue, but at a much reduced pace.”

A Wilkie case

Wilkie’s feelings on the referendum have been muted. In an email to the News + Record, the lone Republican on the board said that county employees were “restricted from supporting or opposing any referendum that is to be voted on in an election,” and as such he declined to provide his position.

During discussion on the referendum last year, county staff stated multiple times that commissioners were allowed to advocate for and against, but public money could not be used to do so. Additionally, to call commissioners “county employees” is not entirely accurate — they are paid for their work, but the highest officer in the county government, the County Manager, reports to them.

As Crawford mentioned in his Facebook post, Wilkie was a somewhat active participant in the discussion, passing on a recommendation from the Agriculture Advisory Board to include agriculture-related expenses in the possible uses of revenue. He also voted in October for both the timing of the referendum, on the March primary ballot, and for the four uses.

But he told the News + Record that didn’t reflect his true feelings.

“I supported putting the sales tax increase to a vote by voters in the general election when more voters will participate,” Wilkie said. “I voted against it being on the ballot during the primary election because there is a much smaller turnout.”

The truth is somewhat complicated. In the October meeting when motions were made to put the item on the ballot and indicate the uses, Wilkie voted “yes” on both motions. In November, when formal resolutions were presented before the board to be finalized, Wilkie voted “no” on the timing resolution. Asked about the October vote, Wilkie did not answer the question and said, “I don’t have time to review the tapes.”

As to the Republican Party’s statements, Wilkie did not take a position on their truth or validity.

“I have no control over what the Chatham County Republican Party decides to promote,” Wilkie said. “I guess they chose to single out Mr. Dasher and Mrs. Howard because they will probably be on the November ballot.”

Voting on the referendum continues during early voting and on primary election day on March 3.

Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at zhorner@chathamnr.com or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.

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