Wake commissioners reject referendum to let county vote on teacher pay

08/05/2014 10:03 AM

08/05/2014 10:04 AM

Wake County voters will not get a chance this fall to voice their opinion on whether local sales taxes should be raised to provide more money for teacher salaries.

In a 4-2 vote Monday, the Wake County Board of Commissioners rejected putting on the Nov. 4 ballot a referendum that would ask voters for permission to raise the sales tax rate by a quarter-cent. The additional revenue, estimated at around $27 million a year, would have gone toward raising salaries for school employees. It would have cost the median income Wake County household about $40 more per year.

Monday’s vote came after a heated debate in which Republicans and Democrats accused each other of playing politics. Republican commissioners argued that the referendum wasn’t needed, pointing to how the new state budget raises salaries for teachers.

“It is a state responsibility,” said Joe Bryan, the Republican vice chairman of the commissioners. “The state addressed that with a 7 percent on average pay increase, the largest amount ever in the history of the state.”

But Democratic commissioners questioned the stability of the state budget, pointing to the use of one-time dollars for the pay increase. Democrats also said Wake risks falling behind other counties that want to raise sales taxes to provide an additional pay boost for teachers.

“I’m simply asking that we let our voters decide if they think it’s important for Wake County to remain competitive in teacher recruitment and retention, and if they think it’s important that we pay our teachers more,” said Democratic Commissioner Caroline Sullivan.

‘I’m sad’

Monday’s vote kills the chances of a referendum for this year and likely one for next year, too. Monday was the deadline for commissioners to give the Wake Board of Elections enough time to put a referendum on the Nov. 4 ballot.

“I’m sad they’ve taken that opportunity away from voters,” school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said in an interview.

Also, a recently passed state bill awaiting the signature of Gov. Pat McCrory would only allow counties to hold special elections, such as referendums, in even-numbered years or during regular countywide elections.

Democratic commissioners complained that the new law would kill prospects for a half-cent sales tax vote being considered for November 2015 to pay for transit improvements. But Republican Commissioner Paul Coble said officials would then have more time to get a new transit plan right.

Monday’s vote on the school referendum came after months of debate about how much the county should do to raise pay for teachers. In June, commissioners agreed to raise teacher pay by $3.75 million after rejecting a $29.1 million proposal from the school board.

In North Carolina, the state pays the salaries for most public school teachers. Counties such as Wake can supplement the state’s pay. Wake’s supplement is a percentage of each teacher’s state salary, working out to an average of $6,204 per teacher.

For instance, the new state budget would raise the salaries for beginning teachers to $33,000, a raise of 7 percent. Wake would provide an additional boost to raise the salary to around $37,700 a year.

Democratic commissioners had pushed for the referendum, noting how Guilford and Mecklenburg counties are holding referendums this fall to raise sales taxes to provide more funding for teacher salaries.

“Why on earth would a new graduate in education not go to a place where they can make $3,000 more?” Sullivan said. “What’s the incentive to come here to Wake?”

But Republican commissioners questioned raising sales taxes on the heels of a 4.4-cent property tax rate increase this year to repay last fall’s school construction bond referendum.

“The point is not to be the highest county in the state in taxation,” Coble said. “The point is to be competitive, and that’s the reason we’re seeing people come here and move into this area, and businesses come here – because they don’t feel like they’re going to be taxed unfairly.”

Voting squabble

The heated tone of the debate was shown earlier in the meeting when commissioners voted 4-2 along party lines to not suspend the rules to allow Democratic Commissioner Betty Lou Ward to participate via phone. Ward, a supporter of the referendum, was recently discharged from the hospital and is recuperating.

County Attorney Scott Warren said that in his opinion, Ward’s request to participate should be respected.

But Republican commissioners argued that letting Ward participate by phone wasn’t warranted because her request didn’t qualify as a real emergency.

“I have a problem with people who want to call in and vote on one item and don’t want to participate in the entire meeting,” Coble said. “It’s not fair to the people who are here and doesn’t help us have a healthy and robust discussion on a particular item.”

Democratic commissioners accused their GOP colleagues of not showing respect to the board’s longest-serving member.

“If that’s the compassion we have, so be it,” said Democratic Commissioner James West. “It’s just perplexing. It’s beyond my wild imagination that we as human beings would have that kind of incompassion and the inhumanity to one another.”

Referendum support

During public comment, several speakers urged commissioners to put the referendum on the ballot. Paulette Jones Leaven, vice president of the Wake County chapter of the N.C. Association of Educators, said the group would work to get the referendum passed.

“I’m sure today a positive vote on this referendum being on the ballot will help instill confidence and will help shore up morale of the teachers in Wake County schools,” she said.

The vote Monday came at a time when state legislators have been considering new limits on local decisions to raise taxes.

An earlier version of a measure would have set the limit on local sales tax rates at 2.5 percent – offering new tax options for most rural counties, but a step down from the current limit of 2.75 percent in Wake and five other urban counties. Wake’s current local rate is 2 percent.

The Senate gave the counties a last chance at keeping the higher rate by adding a use-it-or-lose-it provision. If they acted to levy 0.25 percent before the last day of 2014, the urban counties would keep their authority to raise local sales tax rates to 2.75 percent.

The Senate approved the sales tax measure, but the House parked it in the House Rules Committee, often a place where bills go to die.

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