Candidates for county commissioner want Stanly voters to remember how commissioners tried to fiscally sink municipalities last year with a proposed change to sales tax distribution.
An invitational forum for select candidates to introduce their political platforms in Locust Thursday evening led to a rehashing of a countywide controversy last year. At least three candidates for county commissioner want voters to know present board Chairman Joseph Burleson attempted to implement a change to the sales tax distribution without first notifying stakeholders of the ramifications.
In fact, commissioners Jann Lowder, Scott Efird and Bill Lawhon, then chairman, were not informed of the added agenda item ahead of time.
One year ago Burleson led the charge in an unadvertised agenda addition to change how the county distributes its sales tax proceeds. Instead of the traditional method of proceeds based on a municipality’s population, Burleson wanted the county to consider using the ad valorem method of sales tax distribution without first soliciting public input or holding a public hearing.
The change would have meant $1.8 million more to the county’s coffers, proceeds instead siphoned from the county’s 10 municipalities. A prepared resolution awaited so the time-sensitive change could be forwarded to state officials.
All of the county’s municipalities would have suffered financially from the change, which could have led to elimination of services such as police departments or property tax hikes.
“Either he (Burleson) didn’t know or he didn’t care. If he didn’t care, he shouldn’t be sitting in that chair,” said Republican Tommy Jordan, Burleson’s District 3 challenger.
Burleson defended considering the change despite its ripple effect.
“It is the job of the county commissioners to discuss and decide the highest and best use of all citizens’ tax dollars,” Burleson said via email Friday. “When the issue was brought up last year, it was simply an opportunity for commissioners and the public to become better informed on how your tax dollars are spent and make a more informed decision. State law requires the county commissioners to declare the sales distribution method.”
His comments, however, failed to explain the lack of transparency to advise taxpayers of the issue or why the resolution was prepared prior to board discussions.
He said the extra proceeds would have allowed the county to invest more in public safety and education without raising property taxes, regardless to how it impacted municipalities.
“Again it’s not fair to every other resident of Stanly County that the town of Badin has almost doubled their population count by annexing the prison property into the town for the purpose of inflating their town’s population by counting the prisoners,” Burleson said. “I don’t know about you all, but I’ve never seen the prison bus drop off any prisoners at Wal-Mart to purchase any items.”
No municipality would have suffered as much as Badin, which would have lost 80 percent of its annual revenue, Jordan said.
Badin benefits because it counts the population of Albemarle Correctional Institute toward the town’s overall population.
However, Badin police respond to calls to the prison, Chief Bryan Lambert reminded commissioners last year.
Eventually Lowder, Efird, Lawhon and the swing vote of Matthew Swain led to the matter tabled for further review.
Hundreds packed the next meeting in opposition of the proposal. After they voiced their anger, the Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to forgo pursing the change in sales tax distribution.
“We’re one county of nine towns and one city. If the towns are doing good, the county is doing good,” Lawhon told the crowd Thursday night.
Lawhon is set to face Joe Speight in the primary, who he called a “nice guy.”
“It takes more than being a nice guy to be county commissioner,” Lawhon added.
Lowder, who is opposed by Lane Furr, also explained how last year’s events transpired, prompting her to list five requirements for effective commissioner leadership: conservative, listen, uphold values, honesty and integrity, and transparency.
Her husband, Gary, a former county commissioner, was the most vocal critic of the sales tax distribution matter, calling it a “back-room deal,” orchestrated by Burleson and N.C. House Rep. Justin Burr.
“This thing was a scam from the start,” Gary Lowder said.
He said Burleson was doing Burr’s dirty work.
Gary Lowder, a self-professed Republican for the past 23 years, continued that such leadership is crippling the county as well as the local GOP, presently led by Phil Burr and his son Justin — whom Gary Lowder called “Papa Burr and Baby Burr.”
“The Burr party is not the Republican Party of the past,” he added.
Gary Lowder also hinted that Burleson is to Justin Burr what Justin Burr was to former Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, a “waterboy.”
“If we don’t get some leadership and get away from these boys who work for their daddys, we’re in sad shape,” Gary Lowder said.
Wayne Sasser, Justin Burr’s GOP primary opponent for N.C. House District 67, was also on hand to contrast his plans to those of the incumbent.
Sasser said Justin Burr’s failure to help secure broadband for Stanly has hampered its economic development, adding that the five-term Stanly Republican has “abused the public’s trust for self-gain” rather than work to meet Stanly’s needs.
“Broadband has been blocked by your state representative,” Sasser said. “We have to have broadband to have economic development in this county.”
Justin Burr did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
Former sheriff Rick Burris spoke to the supportive crowd as he tries to survive a five-candidate field in the GOP primary en route to a re-election bid.
“I don’t like the direction the Sheriff’s Office is going in,” Burris said. “It’s like a ship you’ve got to put on course.”
He talked about the economic and social impact of a pre-trial release program that has been discontinued.
Burris said he favors a return to a four-zone patrol in the county, instead of three. He also prefers deputies change shifts and exchange information in their zone opposed to returning to headquarters in Albemarle.
“These officers need to stay in the field,” he added.
Efird chose not to reference the sales tax distribution issue. Instead, he talked about the importance of being able to kindly disagree in the interest of effective government.
“If everybody is thinking the same thing then someone is not thinking,” Efird said.