PITTSBORO — Early next year, residents of Chatham County will have the opportunity to vote on a new sales tax fund to support multiple county initiatives, including affordable housing and education.
The Chatham County Board of Commissioners voted Monday afternoon to hold a referendum on an Article 46 local option sales tax in the 2020 primary election. If approved, the county could be the beneficiary of an additional $1.6 million — the projected revenues if the tax had been in place in 2017 — and potentially more in future years.
The commissioners and county staff have been discussing the possibility for many months and on Monday, they finally approved the ballot item by a unanimous vote and set some potential standards for how the money would be spent.
No percentages were allocated or decided, but the board also passed a motion to instruct county staff to draft a resolution saying the funds would be used in the future for affordable housing, education, parks and recreation and “agricultural preservation and enhancement,” as Vice Chairman Diana Hales put it. Other options previously discussed included economic development and broadband access, but those were discarded for various reasons.
Commissioner Karen Howard began the discussion by saying that economic development was “covered by all these other things” and that making it a separate item was “not our strongest move.” Commissioner Jim Crawford later said that counties were hamstrung on broadband access due to “a public bad legislature.”
But the other items were generally supported by the board. Howard cited the “looming challenges” when it comes to education, particularly teacher salaries and the Chatham Promise program. Board Chairman Mike Dasher said parks and recreation funds could be used to match grants from outside sources. Multuple board members vocally supported the agricultural piece, which received a boost from a presentation earlier in the afternoon.
Debbie Roos from the N.C. Cooperative Extension’s Chatham office and Tandy Jones, chairman of the county’s Agricultural Advisory Board, spoke prior to the sales tax discussion about how large portions of farmland in Chatham County are being taken over by development, and they felt that any permanent sources of county money could help keep farmers on farmland and continue agriculture’s place as a prominent part of the Chatham economy.
“Participating in programs that provide more stability for that sector of your economy, the ultimate beneficiary is the county, but it’s through protecting farmland,” Jones said.
The board also generally agreed that affordable housing would get a large chunk of money from the fund, if approved by citizens, but keeping options open would allow for flexibility down the road.
“That’s the best thing about it,” Crawford said. “I think the affordable housing is a clearly demonstrated need and would expect get the lion’s share, but I also like the idea of also finding out what else could be there.”
North Carolina’s 2020 primary elections are currently scheduled for March 3. The county may produce educational material on the ballot referendum, but may not advocate for or against the measure. Individual commissioners may advocate for a position, but cannot use county funds or receive reimbursement on expenditures related to their advocacy.
The board will receive a formal resolution on uses next month and vote on it. The uses will not be spelled out in the referendum.
Reporter Zachary Horner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @ZachHornerCNR.