BROADWAY: Taxes dominate discussion during town hall meeting

Apr. 16, 2014 @ 05:01 AM

Taxes were the main topic of conversation at a town hall meeting Monday night in Broadway held by the Lee County commissioners.

The commissioners made several tweaks to local tax policies last year, lowering the property tax rate across the county and compensating for the loss by redistributing more than $1 million in sales tax revenues from the city of Sanford and another $100,000 from the town of Broadway into the county's treasury.

At Monday's meeting, the commissioners explained those moves and gave an overview of the county's budget — mostly spent on education and social services, with the rest going toward public safety, economic development, recreation and other government costs in addition to making payments on millions of dollars in debt.

That debt was accrued mainly through helping Central Carolina Community College and the local public schools either renovate old buildings or build new ones, and board chairman Charlie Parks said it's a large drain.

That prompted Bob Stevens, the Broadway town manager, to inquire why the commissioners lowered the property tax from 75 cents per $100 in value to 72 cents. He said the median value of an owner-occupied home in Lee County is around $128,000 — meaning that a three-cent drop in the property tax rate only put about $39 into the pocket of the typical homeowner.

He asked the commissioners if that was really worth it considering the debt they already have, not to mention the help that CCCC and the public schools are still asking for — especially CCCC, Stevens said, "which is the lifeblood of this county."

But Parks countered that two-thirds of students in Lee County Schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a figure he said is much higher than it was before the recession.

"Do you want to reduce the taxes a little and see if we can help them somewhat, or do you want to raise taxes and see more kids on free and reduced lunches?" he said, describing the board's thought process behind the move.

Commissioner Jim Womack said that's also only part of their reasoning. The board's Republican majority are strong believers in supply-side economics, he explained, and were acting on the logic that if they lowered property taxes, it would make this area more attractive to businesses — and that the entry of new companies would have trickle-down benefits like the addition of new jobs for locals and new equipment for the county to tax.

He noted that the local property tax rate is still higher than most of Lee County's neighbors and the typical county anywhere in the state.

"We would've been taking a few dollars more from each individual taxpayer, but we would've become less and less competitive," Womack said. "... The closer we get to the median tax rate, the more viable we are."

Parks noted that in the last year, many businesses have either opened in Lee County or announced plans to open, including two Walmart Express stores, Tractor Supply, Dunham's Sports, Hobby Lobby, Marshalls and packaging company Fitzpak, which received a $150,000 loan from the county under the condition it would hire 50 people and invest in at least $4 million in equipment.

Raising another tax issue, Broadway resident Judy Davis said she and her husband travel frequently and are ready to pay whatever occupancy tax a county might place on hotel rooms. She questioned why Lee County's occupancy tax has remained so low, especially with hotel rooms in high demand with this summer's U.S. Open golf tournaments in neighboring Moore County.

The commissioners at the meeting — Parks and Womack in addition to Kirk Smith and Amy Dalrymple — noted her concern but didn't say what their plans, if any, might be for the occupancy tax in the future.