Local Politics

Orange County Polls Voters on Transfer Tax

Posted February 27, 2008 7:08 p.m. EST
Updated February 28, 2008 10:26 a.m. EST

— Six months after the idea of taxing people who  sell their homes was soundly defeated in several North Carolina counties, Orange County will put it to another test.

State lawmakers approved the land-transfer tax option last year to give counties a way to raise money to deal with growth-related spending, such as new schools, improved roads and expanded water and sewer systems. The tax would collect 0.4 percent of the sale price for homes and other real estate.

Sixteen counties put the proposal on the ballot in November, and voters in all of them overwhelmingly rejected it.

That hasn't stopped county officials statewide from wanting the tax, however. In Chatham County, for example, where it failed in the fall,  officials said they plan to keep putting a land-transfer tax before voters until it passes.

Orange County Commissioner Moses Carey said he and his colleagues opted for the transfer tax because it would impact fewer people than a half-cent local sales tax, which lawmakers also offered as an option for cash-strapped counties.

"Growth is occurring, and we need that revenue," Carey said.

Orange County officials spent $10,000 in taxpayer money on a poll to gauge public reaction to a transfer tax.

Chapel Hill Realtor Mark Zimmerman said he believes the transfer tax unfairly hits homeowners, and he also has doubts about a publicly funded poll on the issue.

"They may very well have crossed the line not only in doing a poll, but the way in which it was worded and conducted," Zimmerman said.

Carey disagreed, saying officials need information to make decisions.

"It wasn't a push poll. It was an objective poll to find out what our residents were thinking, and it provided us with some valuable information that will help us decide what areas we need to focus on," he said.

Whether the poll predicts an outcome of the vote is unclear.

One poll question found 50 percent of Orange voters would lean toward a higher sales tax as an option, and 32 percent said they wouldn’t.

In answering another question, 33 percent said they’d lean toward a land transfer tax and 53 percent said they wouldn’t.

In a comparison question, 47 percent said "sales," 42 percent said "land transfer," and 8 percent said no real preference.

David Lawrence, a professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina School of Government, said he sees no problem using public money for polling as long as a poll is conducted before leaders decide to put a measure on the ballot.

Homeowner Ralph Mason said he is frustrated by the polling.

"To take my tax dollars and hire a consultant to convince me to vote the way county commissioners want to vote, that's not what we should be doing in Orange County," said Mason, who is trying to sell his Chapel Hill home.

"I really feel I've been paying my fair share for quite a while," he said. "I'm happy to pay my fair share, but I don't want to pay everyone else's too."