Legal help needed on school tax

Published 2:15 pm Sunday, September 13, 2015

JACKSON – If a referendum is placed on next year’s ballot to decide the fate of a supplemental school tax, Northampton County local government will alone be responsible for paying specialized legal counsel that will assist the county in the process.

At their meeting here Wednesday morning, the Northampton County Board of Commissioners learned that the fee to set-up the referendum will come entirely from the General Fund budget. The commissioners were hoping to split the potential $6,500 fee with the Northampton County Board of Education.

“The board asked me to contact the (schools) superintendent to ask if the board of education would pay half the cost for the bond attorney. I got a call from the superintendent after she had talked with her board and they felt that the cost should be beared by the county,” Northampton County Manager Kimberly Turner told the commissioners.

The supplemental school tax issue was part of a settlement reached July 20 between the two boards on the heels of a mitigation process, one launched by the board of education after they received “level funding” ($3.65 million for 2015-16; the same as in 2014-15) from the commissioners.

During mitigation, the school board asked for an additional $2.5 million, but settled for $550,000. As part of the mitigation, both boards agreed to work together to develop and support a plan to construct a new school. That plan includes developing construction options that will allow both boards to mutually agree to the amount of funding to be sought and that a voter referendum is scheduled for next year to decide the fate of the supplemental tax, the proceeds of which will be earmarked totally for the new school.

After Wednesday’s meeting, attorney Scott McKellar, who serves as legal counsel to the commissioners, explained to the News-Herald that a law firm, specializing in such matters, was needed to help guide the county through the referendum process.

“While this is technically not a bond referendum, we need to seek what is known as bond (legal) counsel in this matter,” McKellar said.

“(Voter) referendums need to be properly worded by those who specialize in such matters, and we need guidance on the timeline we need to follow from this point forward to when the votes are cast early next year,” Turner noted. “We also need guidance on the maximum amount of supplemental tax that can be levied if the referendum is approved by the voters.”

As noted in the minutes from their Aug. 17 meeting, the commissioners received a letter from Hunton & Williams law firm of Raleigh, who presented itself as an option to assist the county in the supplemental tax referendum. In that letter, Hunton & Williams said they could perform that work for a fee not to exceed $6,500. Turner confirmed that the county had previously used this law firm in other legal matters.

However, before any specialized legal counsel is placed under contract, the Northampton County Board of Education is first required to formally petition the commissioners and ask for a supplemental school tax to be placed as a referendum on the ballot. Turner told the News-Herald that of Wednesday, the commissioners had yet to receive such a petition.

“Once that does occur, the commissioners are required to adopt a resolution that will eventually lead to the referendum being placed before the voters by way of a referendum,” she said.

The $6,500 cost of the specialized legal counsel must be paid by the county no matter the outcome of the referendum.

In a related matter from Wednesday’s meeting, Turner said the commissioners need to engage in a discussion regarding their feelings in partnering with the school system over the use of the athletic fields at the Northampton County Cultural & Wellness Center.

“That requires very deep discussion,” stated Commissioner Virginia Spruill.

“We’re going to need to know a lot more information before we can reach a decision on that,” offered Commission Vice Chairman Joe Barrett. “We’ll need to know the extent and time frames that the facility will be used by them as opposed to the way it’s being used now, and if that schedule will interfere negatively with the purpose of the Wellness Center. I think we can make a decision, but we need that information.”

Turner reminded the commissioners that one of the locations the board of education was looking at to possibly build a new school was adjacent to the Cultural & Wellness Center.

“Whatever you decide about that (joint use of athletic fields) will effect their decision as far as how they want to build that school,” she said. “It will not cost as much if they are able to partner with us and use our athletic fields. If we don’t allow that, then they have to go back and plan for something else.”

It has been previously noted by the Northampton Board of Education that the new facility will serve middle and high school students. Of the four possible locations previously discussed, three are near Jackson; including two just west of town off US 158 and the other adjacent to the Cultural & Wellness Center.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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