RALEIGH — Caswell County commissioners could avoid a proposed sales tax increase for 28 years by diverting almost $4.8 million in savings and existing revenue streams to high-priority county government functions. That’s a key finding in a new John Locke Foundation Regional Brief.
“The savings and revenue reallocation recommended in this Regional Brief would generate almost 28 times the amount of money the sales tax increase would provide to Caswell County,” said Dr. Michael Sanera, JLF Research Director and Local Government Analyst. “That means the county could adopt the ideas in this report and delay a sales-tax increase for 28 years.”
County commissioners are asking voters to approve a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax Nov. 4. “Commissioners say they need to raise taxes to pay for school construction,” Sanera said. “Our report shows that Caswell County government could address its needs by setting better priorities with its existing resources.”
“And taxpayers should remember that commissioners’ statements about how they would use new revenue are not legally binding,” Sanera added. “Once they raise a tax, the law says they can use new tax revenue for any legal purpose.”
Caswell is one of the latest group of N.C. counties asking taxpayers for the right to raise local sales or real-estate transfer taxes. Sanera leads a JLF research team analyzing the potential impact in each county. Working with Sanera are Joseph Coletti, JLF Fiscal Policy Analyst, and Terry Stoops, JLF Education Policy Analyst.
Caswell County commissioners cannot argue that school growth justifies a new tax, Sanera said. “Over the next ten years, the number of students will decrease by 580,” he said. “That’s 17.8 percent of the school population.”
“If the school district has facility needs, county commissioners and the school board need to show taxpayers how they would spend the $4.5 million the state has promised for capital improvements over the next 10 years,” Sanera added. “Commissioners should also follow this report’s recommendations for reducing education costs without hurting classroom instruction.”
Caswell County revenues have grown 24 percent faster than the combined rate of inflation and population growth since the 2002 budget year, Sanera said. “Caswell raised $3.2 million more from its taxpayers in the 2007 budget year than in 2002,” he said. “The average family of four paid $548 more in taxes in 2007 than in 2002. A family’s income would have been forced to jump by 42 percent to meet the increase in county government revenues during the past five years.”
Caswell County government doesn’t need to take additional money away from taxpayers, Sanera said. “If Caswell County adjusted its revenue stream to grow only as fast as the combined rate of population and inflation growth, total revenues would increase 31 percent during the next 10 years,” he said. “This increase is more than adequate to pay for county needs.”
County commissioners have easy access to one piece of Caswell County’s $4.8 million in funds available for high-priority government functions, Sanera said. “The state requires counties to keep 8 percent of their budget in reserve for emergencies, but Caswell has about $400,000 more than that minimum,” he said. “This represents more than two times the amount that the sales tax would raise. In other words, the county could use this available cash for the next two years before seeking new sales-tax revenue. This item alone should convince skeptics that the county does not need to increase the sales tax.”
In 2007, the General Assembly gave every county a chance to raise either the local sales tax or the real-estate transfer tax. The new tax options were part of a deal involving the state relieving counties of local Medicaid expenses. The deal also called on counties to forfeit a half cent of the local sales tax rate.
“Even though Caswell and other counties were forced to give up some revenue as part of the Medicaid deal, they now benefit from another part of the deal called the ‘hold harmless’ provision,” Sanera said. “It guarantees that Caswell County will have at least $500,000 in additional funds that can be used to meet other county needs. Caswell actually fares better than that, with $625,000 in the first full year and $5.5 million expected over 10 years.”
Counties cannot raise the sales or real-estate transfer taxes without a local referendum. Commissioners across North Carolina have pursued that option 58 times since November 2007. Voters rejected each real-estate transfer tax hike. They also rejected most sales tax proposals. In all, voters have rejected 50 of 58 proposed local tax increases.
“Most voters see through the misinformation about the ‘need’ for more tax revenue,” Sanera said. “In all the counties voting on tax increases, revenues grew faster than the combined rate of population growth and inflation between 2002 and 2007. The average increase was almost 19 percent. In the same time period, state government spending has outpaced inflation and population growth by 6 percent. This government growth rate cannot be sustainable.”
“The November 4 vote provides the opportunity for Caswell County citizens to be heard,” Sanera added. “The results of the 58 county tax votes in the past year are informative. Citizens, when given the chance, are rejecting tax increases.”
The John Locke Foundation’s Regional Brief “Does Caswell Need a Sales-Tax Increase?” is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact Sanera at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].