Durham's Board of County Commissioners approved resolutions Monday night to offer two new sales taxes on nonessential goods for approval on November's ballot.
Both taxes—1/2 of a penny for transit and 1/4 of a penny for education—would help fill in gaps in state-level funding further widened by this year's General Assembly, which voted to end a temporary 1-cent sales tax for education, said Board of County Commissioners Vice Chairwoman Ellen Reckhow.
"We do have a window of opportunity here to raise some critical resources for education [and transportation] when the state's backing off," Reckhow said. She noted that her board was proposing a combined sales tax increase of three-fourths of a penny, which would still lead to a net reduction for Durham shoppers once the state's 1-cent sales tax expires next month.
The county wants voters to allow a 1/2-cent sales tax on goods (except housing, food, medicine and gasoline) in Durham County to expand public bus services and add commuter-rail and light-rail systems that could eventually interconnect with rail services in Orange and Wake counties. See maps, graphics and plans here.
Commissioners compromised, however, on exactly when to levy the tax if it's approved in November. The board decided it would not ask the Triangle Transit Authority to institute the tax until Wake and Orange counties hold public votes on the same issue, putting the new tax off by at least a year. Elected officials in Wake and Orange counties have said they intend to place the transit tax on their 2012 ballots.
The compromise was partly in response to concerns about tri-county collaboration raised by Commissioner Joe Bowser. Durham officials shouldn't collect the tax until they know the two other counties are committed to implementing their portions of the regional transit plan the taxes would fund.
"The [other counties] might never come online," Bowser said. "And if they never come online, we can't do this project alone."
If the transit tax were levied next year, the first full year of collection in 2013 would have garnered an estimated $18 million. It's unclear how that estimate would change with a one-year delay in collection. The tax is projected to fund commuter rail between Durham and Research Triangle Park to be built by 2018, and light rail into Chapel Hill by 2025. (See a Durham County fact sheet on the tax, PDF)
If voters approve, a 1/4-cent sales tax would be added to purchases of goods (other than gasoline, food and medication) beginning in April 2012, generating an estimated $9 million in its first full year in 2013. About $8.1 million of that year-one money would go to the operating and debt-payment budgets of the Durham Public Schools, with the rest benefitting pre-kindergarten programs and being allocated in grants for DPS students to attend Durham Technical Community College. (See Durham County's fact sheet, PDF.)