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Sales Tax Nixed by Voters in Primaries, County Projects to be Funded by Property Tax Instead

By Luke Weir

Watauga County residents voted against raising the local sales tax by one quarter of a percent during primary elections Tuesday. As a result, the property tax will not be correspondingly lowered, thus allowing the county to continue paying for upcoming multi-million dollar community projects, according to members of the Watauga County Board of Commissioners.

Jimmy Hodges, Watauga County Board of Commissioners representative for District 5, said he believed the public did not understand the wording of the tax referendum on the ballot.

“I’m very disappointed the quarter cent sales tax did not pass, it would have made a significant difference in the property tax if it did,” Hodges said. “I don’t believe the public understood the intention of the tax, because you cannot state the purpose of the tax on the ballot, that’s against the law.”

The sales tax resolution was passed unanimously by the board of commissioners at their Feb. 6 meeting to be voted on in the May primary election. The tax increase did not pass by 551 votes, according to the still unofficial results.

“The sales tax increase was to help pay for the recreation center, which is going to cost somewhere in the mid-30 million dollar range, while bringing down last year’s property tax increase from 4 cents—which represented about a 13% increase overall—down to 2 cents,” Hodges said. “I wish it had passed, because that just makes more sense to me, and I believe it would have to the public if they understood the intention.”

Billy Kennedy, Watauga County Board of Commissioners representative for District 3, said the failed sales tax will not change the county’s plans to build a new recreation center and improve local schools.

“The only difference is we would have reduced the property tax by about the same amount if the quarter cent sales tax passed,” Kennedy said. “It was just going to change how the county pays for its services, like the county recreation center and school improvements.”

Like Hodges, Kennedy said he thought people might have been confused by the wording on the ballot, causing them to vote against it.

“By state statute, the wording you can put on the ballot is very specific,” Kennedy said. “You can’t say what is going to happen if the tax passes, you can only put the tax itself.”

Despite the sales tax not passing, Kennedy said Watauga County would continue as planned with its projects, and leave the property tax rate where it was.

“All the projects are already ongoing in a way,” Kennedy said. “We’ve been planning for the community recreation center, and the almost-final plans are out.”

Plans for the new recreation center are available in hard copy at the Watauga County Manager’s office, but are not available digitally due to their massive physical size, according to County Manager Deron Geouque. The new recreation center will be located where the old Lowe’s Home Improvement building is, on Hunting Lane and State Farm Road, across the street from the Boone Optimist Clubhouse.

“As far as school improvement, they hired an architect to do a review of all the schools in the county and came up with a 10-year building plan,” Kennedy said. “Some schools will need to be replaced, some improved—that came out recently too.”

 School improvement plans are available on the Watauga County Schools website.

 “This quarter cent sales tax is not really going to change the revenue of the county, it will just keep coming from property owners, rather than people spending money in the county,” Kennedy said. “We have a county budget up for public comment at our meeting on May 15, that’s next Tuesday.”

The budget will be discussed at the Watauga County Board of Commissioners’ second May meeting on May 15 in the Commissioners’ Board Room of the Watauga County Administration Building, 814 W King Street, at 5:30 p.m.