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Start the Sales Tax Conversation Today

I title these files the date that I publish them making this the first time I dated something 2023. Of course, I initially wrote 2022 - a mistake I expect to make only a hundred more times over the next two months.

I won’t be writing regular Thursday or Sunday columns for the Concurrent this year, but rather only publish the longform 750 word pieces when necessary. It’s January first, and this one can’t wait.

It’s time to talk about the sales tax. I have been adamantly against the idea of raising it in the past, but over time I’ve been willing to reconsider. That part is key. It’s taken time, about a year and a half to be honest and I’m not even fully ready to say I’m 100% for it.

The conversation has to start now. Commissioner Rebecca Bays makes the most sense to be leading it. Commissioner Bays was as ardent a proponent of the proposal as she was an eloquent and elegant explainer of it while on the campaign trail. She also has the most political cover as someone who is not up for re-election for another four years.

Chairman Ruthie Schlabach and Commissioner Holly Davis have also been supporters and are equally as effective at communicating its merits, both have come close to convincing me, but it is tough to spearhead a single issue when you have to campaign on several in the upcoming cycle. The same goes for Commissioner Jeff Kinnard, who has expressed support in the past, but somewhat more tepidly than his colleagues.

That leaves Commissioner Diana Finegan. She’s in a unique position that I think could be an asset to both the board and to the proposal. She can play devil’s advocate. Her position on the sales tax during the campaign was to put it on the ballot and leave it up to the voters, but never personally expressing an opinion on it. She should come out against it.

Not only would this be politically advantageous, but it can strengthen the discussion to make sure the proposal is rock solid.

This means having a short sunset (likely four years), a low cap on purchases (I’ve heard $5,000 but maybe she can get them down to $3,500), the right exemptions to be sure low income earners aren’t hurt disproportionately (food and medicine) and air-tight language to direct the funds to residential road resurfacing rather than bond payments or maintenance.

I get ahead of myself with this, and so do those in favor of the initiative. Something needs to happen before the proposal is ever pitched to the public. Trust needs to be regained.

The most common criticism is going to be that the commission can cut or redirect enough funds to pay for the road resurfacing without needing the public to vote for raising their own taxes. The board needs to rebuild trust with the public to prove to them this is not the case.

This means taking the blame for some bad votes, like allocating $1 million in Duke funds to a bike trail that is never going to happen, but also means explaining how much resurfacing is currently going on which is happening at an increased pace thanks to this board taking the issue seriously.

It’s not about the additional cost to the average voter; it’s about the feeling of unfairness that they keep giving more money to people who they don’t think have spent what they’ve given them effectively. That’s why taking blame for some things is so important. The board has to admit that feeling has been justified to some extent, but explain why this sales tax raise is different.

The conversation will be a difficult one. It will go back and forth, as it should. I truly believe the public will come to see that a temporary raise in taxes, paid a quarter by tourists, will ultimately save us money long-term to reset some of the most deteriorating roads before they get beyond repair.

Inflation is cooling slightly, although it’s impossible to notice at the grocery store or gas pump, yet most predict 2023 has in store an even more sudden economic downturn. We must proceed cautiously but courageously to face what must be done to pave our future without putting too much hurt in the present. Welcome to 2022, I mean, 2023 - the year of having the hard debates.


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