ECPPS board seeks 3rd vote on sales tax hike


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Local school officials apparently are hoping the third time voters are asked to raise the local sale tax to fund education will be the charm

The Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Board of Education asked Pasquotank County commissioners Tuesday night to call for yet another referendum — the third in six years — on increasing the sales tax to help public education.

Whether the referendum could be placed on the primary ballot this May was unclear Wednesday.

School board members made the request for another referendum attempt at a meeting with commissioners Tuesday night at Weeksville Elementary School. Commissioners didn't vote on the board’s request, but several spoke in favor of it.

Were the referendum to pass, it would allow commissioners to increase the county's sales tax rate from 6.75 percent to 7 percent. School and county officials estimate a quarter-cent increase in sales tax revenue would generate another $1 million for the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools. School officials didn't detail Tuesday how the extra money would be used.

Pasquotank voters rejected the sales tax increase in 2012 and again in 2016, each time by margins of 64 percent to 36 percent. Nevertheless, Board of Commissioners Vice Chairman Bill Sterritt and Commissioner Jeff Dixon said they were willing to ask voters again to approve the tax increase.

Sterritt suggested the referendum could pass if commissioners and school board members better campaigned for it.

“I think it ought to happen, and with the right organizational structure, I feel a little more confident than I have the last two times,” Sterritt said. “When you put in on (the ballot), you're sending a message there's still a need.”

Dixon said it's often taken other counties three attempts to get sales tax referendums passed. However, he didn't express as much confidence as Sterritt.

“I'm just perplexed. … I rack my brain on how to get that thing passed,” Dixon said.

Dixon also said some voters don't trust the county enough to give it more tax money. State law doesn't allow commissioners to state on the referendum how additional tax revenue would be used — the county can't provide a legally-binding guarantee the money will be used only for public education.

Notably, commissioners passed a resolution in 2016 stating the extra money would go to education. Future commissioners wouldn't have been bound by that promise, however, Dixon noted.

Pasquotank Finance Officer Sheri Small also blamed some of voters' mistrust on the NC Education Lottery, from which state lawmakers have diverted much of the funding that was supposed to go to school facility needs.

School board members also suggested the referendum has failed because, despite advocacy campaigns and press coverage, many voters still don't understand how the tax works.

Board member Pam Pureza said some voters didn't realize that the tax would be paid by everyone who shops in Pasquotank, meaning non-county residents would also help support the school district.

She also suggested the massive attention focused on the presidential elections in both 2012 and 2016 had prevented voters from learning about local issues.

“There's just so much hype over the presidential (election), that some of this smaller, local stuff, it drowns that out,” Pureza said.

Dixon said that might be a factor, and noted the referendum might have a better chance of passing in a midterm election, when voter turnout is typically lower.

School board Vice Chairman Denauvo Robinson also said many voters misunderstood the size of the tax increase.

“The other piece was getting people to read; while we say 'one quarter of a cent,' they're thinking 25 cents,” Robinson said. “They read it as one quarter of a dollar.”

Referendum advocates tried to emphasize that point in 2016. For every $4 people spent on applicable goods and services, they'd pay another penny. Fuel and grocery purchases were exempt from the increase, advocates also noted.

Commissioners and school board members also discussed whether to place the referendum on the ballot for the May primary or the November general election — or both. Even if the referendum failed in the primary, it would still be “fresh in their minds” for the general election, Pureza said, referring to voters.

Asked Wednesday if the referendum could be placed on ballots for the May primary, Pasquotank Elections Director Kelli Price said the State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement requested all referenda for the primary be submitted by Feb. 16.

Price wasn't immediately certain if that was a legally binding deadline, but noted that election officials need to start sending out absentee ballots by March 19.