Wake County has the authority to enact a ¼-cent sales tax upon voter approval and to apply the proceeds to any public purpose. On the other hand, special legislation creating Triangle Transit provides voters the option of approving a ½-cent sales tax increase limited to the transit program.
The current sales tax rate in Wake is 6.75 percent of each dollar spent. The majority of this (4.75 percent) accrues to state coffers; the remaining 2 percent is apportioned among local governments.
Those who suggest the time is right to ask Wake voters to raise our sales tax can point to other urban communities when defending the charge that local residents pay too much already.
Wakes current combined rate is less than many urban counties: Mecklenburg, 7.25 percent; Durham and Orange, 7.5 percent; Cumberland, New Hanover and Buncombe, 7 percent. County administrators project that increasing the local sales tax by ½-cent would generate an additional $66 million.
Wake Up Wake County seeks to apply these funds to continued planning for a regional light rail transit system along with immediate expansion of bus service. These are legitimate programs and goals. No informed citizen disagrees that as the Triangle continues to add population the desirability of transit increases. But what about other priorities? Is the lack of state-of-the-art transit the biggest current threat to continued job growth?
The Wake County Public School System employs 9,317 classroom teachers of whom 2,303 are National Board Certified. Revenue from a voter approved ¼-cent sales tax increase, if applied across the board to classroom teacher salaries, could supplement the individual teachers salary and combined benefits by $3,579. Or National Board Certified teachers could receive $5,500 increases, with noncertified teachers receiving $3,000.
However the funds are apportioned, isnt restoring public confidence in the public school system the most pressing need facing Wake County today? Isnt halting teacher flight a more pressing need than improving bus service between Raleigh and Carrboro? Are we doing our very best for classroom teachers? I say, No, were not, and Im ashamed.
When asked such questions, Wake Up Wake County supporters say increased financial support of the public school system and transit are both important, both deserve increased funding, and Wake taxpayers can afford to do both simultaneously. Can we? Will we? Practically, and politically, public officials must identify priorities and implement funding programs accordingly.
The next sales tax referendum placed before the voters should address classroom teacher salaries. Transit planning should continue, but increased spending on capital expansion can and should wait until we get a handle on the school classroom funding issue.
Claude Holt of Raleigh is a former planning and zoning attorney for the City of Raleigh.