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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Rougemont hopes dashed; Durham voters OK taxes

Posted by on Tue, Nov 8, 2011 at 10:28 PM

That little town that could? After Tuesday’s vote, it might not be able to.

According to unofficial results, voters in the northern Durham County community of Rougemont rejected the opportunity to incorporate into a town by just 11 votes. Provisional ballots have yet to be counted, so it’s unclear where the final tally will leave the rural community, where 168 voters indicated in a referendum that they don’t want to become a town and pay an extra property tax for new public services. Instead, landowners in this rural area will continue to pay property taxes only to the county.

Supporters of the incorporation have been lobbying state lawmakers for most of the past two decades for a referendum on incorporation. Proponents said that if the small town were incorporated, it would have a greater voice in county decisions and could levy property taxes for local services, including public safety.

Most important, supporters said, having municipal status would give the town more opportunities, such as grants to secure clean drinking water. Many private wells at the intersection of U.S. 501 and Red Mountain Road are contaminated, according to state officials.

But at recent community meetings, some property owners said they didn’t want more public services, street lighting or a farmers market—they just wanted to be left alone.

“We got the opportunity to have a vote, and in this case, the majority spoke,” said Artemas “Lee” Holden, a semi-retired consultant who pushed for the incorporation. Holden, who ran for a spot on the inaugural council, was with other candidates Tuesday night, where they gathered “to celebrate if we had a town, or celebrate that we gave it all.”

Holden said he and other candidates knocked on virtually every door in the 2.5-mile area that would have been incorporated. He was disappointed in the results.

“We’re throwing away a couple hundred thousand dollars a year that could have benefited this community,” he said.

EDUCATION AND TRANSIT TAXES

Voters approved new sales taxes in Durham for education and to fund the beginnings of regional rail and light-rail systems.

The language on the ballot was helplessly vague, but 57 percent of Durham County voters favored a quarter-cent sales tax that promises to benefit Durham Public Schools, Durham Technical Community College and Durham’s Partnership for Children, according to preliminary results.

Early in the day, some proponents of the tax fretted that the question on the ballot, which county officials were not permitted to change, wasn’t specific enough. Labeled as a “county sales and use tax,” the ballot merely asked voters to approve a quarter-cent tax in addition to all other local sales and use taxes.

“I think it was a real challenge for us to overcome the North Carolina Legislature’s short-sighted verbiage on the ballot that doesn’t even mention education,” said Steve Toler, the co-chair of a committee promoting the tax, before the polls closed. “That was a real disappointment. But I think in spite of everything, I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Francine Wilson, 36, arrived at C.C. Spaulding Biosphere Magnet School with her husband. Neither voted for the taxes.

"The economy’s so bad, I can’t afford any more taxes—not right now,” said Wilson, a nursing student at Durham Tech. Only after talking with a reporter did Wilson realize the quarter-cent tax was for education. The language on the ballot was general, she said. She remembered hearing about an education tax in recent weeks, but “when I went in, that was not what I was thinking about,” Wilson said. She looked back at the door to the school. “I really wish I could go back and change it,” she said.

The quarter-cent levy, which won’t be applied to food, medicine, utilities or housing, will start to appear on register receipts in April 2012. The first full year of collections in 2013 is expected to generate as much as $9.2 million. Most of the revenue will preserve teaching jobs and pay for school facility improvements.

Proponents of the half-cent transit tax say they hope that Tuesday’s results send a clear message to the rest of the region—60 percent of Durham’s voters agree that the Triangle needs to invest in mass transit, and they’re willing to lead the efforts.

The transit sales tax, which would not be applicable to food, medicine, utilities or housing, is expected to generate as much as $18 million in the first full year of collections. Although commissioners could levy the tax beginning in April 2012, they have agreed not to collect the money until late 2012 at the earliest, when Wake and Orange county voters are expected to weigh in on their own sales taxes for transit.

Together, the counties would invest in commuter rail service from Durham to Research Triangle Park and Raleigh by 2018, and a light-rail system from Durham to UNC-Chapel Hill by 2025. The projects would require federal and state support, but asking voters to approve the local funds was one of the first crucial steps.

MAYOR AND COUNCIL

As expected, incumbent Mayor Bill Bell handily defeated challenger Sylvester Williams, winning his sixth term in office with nearly 82 percent of the vote. Voters also chose three candidates for city council seats. Incumbents Diane Catotti and Eugene Brown were re-elected to their at-large posts; the third at-large seat went to newcomer Steve Schewel, a former member of the school board and majority owner of the Independent Weekly.

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That little town that could? After Tuesday’s vote, it might not be able to.

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