During the recent election, voters in McDowell County were asked if they are in favor or against a local increase in the sales tax by one-quarter percent. That proposal was soundly defeated by local voters with 9,456 voting against and 4,580 voting in favor.
Since that defeat, the McDowell County Commissioners are taking another look at how to get some major and ambitious projects done now that the additional sales tax money won’t be coming.
“That’s OK,” said Commission Chairman David Walker. “The people spoke on that issue and they spoke against it.”
Walker added the board is focusing on its priorities and looking at other ways to get them accomplished
The first priority, he said, is building the new Old Fort Elementary School. The commissioners are working closely with the McDowell Board of Education on getting that built.
McDowell recently received a $15 million grant from the state for the new school in Old Fort. But that probably won’t be enough to fully pay for it. Architects have estimated the structure could cost as much as $21 million, according to Walker.
The bids for construction will be opened Tuesday, Nov. 20 and then local officials will have a hard number to consider.
“We hope the bids will come in a lot less than what the architect has estimated,” said Walker.
He added under a worst case scenario, the county might have to borrow as much as $6 million. Any significant amount of debt has to be approved first by the state’s Local Government Commission.
“Our board is committed to that project,” said Walker. “With McDowell’s low amount of debt that we have, I feel confident that the LGC will approve it. We as a board will assume that debt at the proper time.”
Walker said another factor about the $15 million grant for the new Old Fort school will be the temporary loss of lottery funding for education.
Under the state’s rules, any county that was awarded a grant like this will not get lottery money for five years. For McDowell, that equals to the loss of $2.3 million for a five-year period.
Another priority for the county commissioners that would have been funded with an increase in sales tax revenue is the building of two new EMS bases. The idea is to move the EMS base out of downtown Marion and build two new ones on both the northern and southern ends of the city.
“We have committed to a new EMS base setup,” said Walker. “That way you reach out to every area of the county quicker.”
McDowell County government already owns land on Barnes Road, which is close to Interstate 40. So a new EMS base could be constructed there. Another one could be constructed near 221 Business or near the entrance to Hankins Road which would serve the northern section of McDowell. The county is still looking for suitable land for that one.
The rough number for county debt on this project is $4 million. Based on the final numbers, McDowell would probably not do both the new Old Fort school and the EMS bases in the same fiscal year. This is due to the LGC’s rules concerning how much debt a county can take on at one time, said Walker.
But that could change depending on how much the county must borrow for each project.
The commissioners have also talked about creating a new public safety training complex that would take the place of the current fire training grounds on Old Greenlee Road. The commissioners have met with the Fire Commission about partnering with the county's fire and rescue departments to develop a complex that will serve the training needs of those agencies for years to come.
The problem for the commissioners was that they were not able to include any of these projects in the wording that appeared on the ballot. They were also prohibited by law to use any county money for advertisements in support of the increase.
“By law, the wording on the ballot comes from the state,” said Walker. “That hurt it.”
Walker said he believes it is better to increase the sales tax rather use the property tax for these projects. “I think it is better to have people traveling through to help pay for it,” he added.
Commissioner Tony Brown said the board had already approved a property tax increase this year and it might have been too much to ask for.
“We already had the property tax (increase),” he said. “It’s hard to justify two tax increases in one year.”
Brown said he was disappointed though by the outcome.
“I wanted to see it pass,” he said.
Brown said the county should have implemented a more gradual increase in the sales tax over the years and then it would have been less of a shock to the residents and business owners.
Commissioner Brenda Vaughn said she was not disappointed by the outcome but, like Walker, believes a sale tax increase is the better way to go.
“I’d like to go on record saying, I am not disappointed that the sales tax referendum did not pass, since we had approved a much-needed tax hike on our property owners of McDowell,” she said. “However, I do feel in the future when the need to address a tax hike in our county is realized we should consider the sales tax as the proper vehicle to use. If we use a sales tax hike instead of a property tax hike - then everyone that shops for anything in McDowell County will be a contributing factor. It is not a good practice in my opinion to continue to only raise the tax on the property owners of McDowell County.”
As for the future, Vaughn said she and the other commissioners will take a closer look at how to fund these projects.
“This is something as a board that will need a serious amount in thought, research, and discussion with various members of our communities and departmental heads to be able to move forward in the right positive direction, and best serve our county,” she said.
“It might take a little bit longer to do what we want to do but that’s OK,” said Walker. “We will readjust and move on. The people spoke and we will move forward.”