Brittney Lofthouse  – Staff Writer

Schools in Macon County are in desperate need of attention. From leaking ceilings at Macon Middle School to overcrowding at South Macon Elementary School to a complete overhaul of Franklin High School, county and school district leaders recognize that long term planning is imperative for the future of education in Macon County.

The recently released county capital improvement plan identified more than $70 million in capital improvement needs for Macon County Schools and another $27 million for Southwestern Community College over the next 10 years.

County leaders all agree that something needs to be done, but funding a solution is another issue in itself. A possible solution could be to leave the decision up to Macon County voters this November.

North Carolina offers individual counties the option to increase the 6.75 percent statewide sales tax to an even 7 percent, with all revenues from the extra quarter-cent going back to the county — the base 6.75 percent sales tax is shared between the county and state.

In Jackson County, nearly two-thirds of Jackson County voters voted in favor of a referendum question allowing the county to increase the county’s sales tax by one fourth of a cent in 2016. The measure increased the county’s sales tax from 6.75 to 7 percent and is expected to generate an additional $1.2 million a year for the county.

When Jackson approved the measure in 2016, they became the 28th of 100 counties to adopt the extra quarter-cent, joining its neighbor Haywood County.

As it stands, funding for the school system, including capital outlay projects and infrastructure needs, are funded out of the county’s general budget, which is funded through the county’s property taxes, meaning Macon County landowners and homeowners pay the bill. Neighboring counties like Jackson County, and Rabun County Georgia, have taken a different approach to funding school needs by approving an education specific sales tax that generates revenue for infrastructure needs. Rather than raising property tax rates to generate additional revenue from property owners, a sales tax revenue would mean anyone shopping in Macon County and paying a sales tax, would be funding the school improvements, rather than just residents.

Jackson County Superintendent Kim Elliott said the tax will repair roofs and build new buildings for SCC in its first full year of implementation.

“Jackson County Public Schools will benefit from the 1/4 of one penny sales tax in the  area of capital projects including new roofs,’ said Elliott. “We do share these funds with SCC and they are hard at work on their health sciences building. The first round of funds will go to SCC. JCPS is grateful our citizens care about our students and the facilities in which they learn.”

Sales tax is often rounded up to 7 percent already, and those dollars get rolled into the redistribution of sales tax across the state. Out of the 6.75 percent sales tax, less than 3 percent is currently returned to the county. An education specific 1/4 of a penny tax would be guaranteed to Macon County each year. If approved, the tax could generate more than $1 million a year for Macon County Schools and SCC.

Having an additional $1 million from the sales tax revenue could free up other funds in the budget for other needs or priorities for the county.

In order for Macon County to consider the quarter cent sales tax increase, the Macon County Board of Commissioners would have to vote to put the referendum on the ballot for voters to either approve or deny. By state statute, the entire quarter cent sales tax would be returned to the county in which it was generated, while the majority of sales tax collected in the county is reimbursed to other counties in the state.

When Jackson County passed the referendum in 2016, Macon County Commissioners said they would consider voting to place the measure on the county ballot, if the voters asked for it. North Carolina state statute dictates that such a referendum must be on the ballot in an even year, meaning this year, this November, 2018, would be the time to consider such a measure.

Several residents shared their support for an education specific tax on Facebook.

“Yes! Yes! Yes,” said Dana Hamby Haley. “We cannot secure our older schools and educate well without a sound, secure structure and more teachers. FHS needs to relocate to a brand new facility to adequately ensure safety for all.”

“I’m a retiree and I think investment in schools is an investment in all of our futures,” said Keith White. “I’m in!”

If commissioners voted to add the referendum to the ballot in November, it would still need to have a majority of votes before becoming law. Commissioner Gary Shield said he would need more time to consider such a measure.

“To me a sales tax referendum on the November 2018 ballot needs further discussion.  The people of our county need to have a voice in the passing of a “quarter cent” sales tax due to this being a tax increase,” said Commissioner Shields. “I like the idea of designating the monies received for educational needs but if we are going to plan on a future high school, our community will have to consider a much larger tax increase when that time comes.  When thinking about additional revenue via a sales tax, Macon County not only has educational needs but safety and mental health have to be addressed.  Overall, before I could vote for a “sales tax” referendum to be put on the 2018 ballot, I personally would need to hear the rhyme and reason for and against.”

To contact Macon County about the possibility of commissioners considering a referendum on the November ballot to provide a tax specific for education, contact County Manager Derek Roland at droland@maconnc.org or (828) 349-2000

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