Cabarrus County voters will have the opportunity to approve or reject a quarter-cent sales tax at the polls Tuesday.
The proposed tax would generate about $3million to $4million annually to help pay down the county's $597million debt, most of which paid for school construction and renovations.
As of last June 30 the county owed $277million on school projects, $150million on bond issues for schools and $5million on campus expansions at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
The rest of the debt is owed on construction of the new county jail and Law Enforcement Center and of Lake Howell, the county's water supply reservoir, commissioner Bob Carruth said.
If approved, the tax would go into effect Oct. 1 and would expire after 20 years, generating an estimated $60million to $80million during that period.
During the past decade, the county built 17 new public schools and made 18 renovations to school buildings, said Liz Poole, commissioners vice chairwoman and a former county school board chairwoman.
The county undertook those school projects to accommodate a rapidly growing population.
"Over the last 10 years,... the big housing boom that came back in the early part of the decade ... opened the floodgates for development and created a demand for schools," Carruth said. "We had no other choice than to build those schools."
Poole said, "I'm sure we will build more schools in the next 20 years, but what we have told the school board is that we will not build in the next five years."
Carruth said the tax would allow the county to shift some of the construction debt from property owners to visitors from outside the county.
Cabarrus County is one of the busiest tourist destination counties in North Carolina and depends on the revenue that visitors provide through sales taxes, Carruth said.
This year, the county expects to collect $26million in sales tax revenue. About 10percent of that is generated by people from elsewhere, he said.
The county's debt payments this year amount to 22percent of its budget, at $42.3million. The county will owe that much annually for the next five years, Carruth said.
"If we don't (approve the sales tax), then we still have to pay for all of the stuff we haven't paid for; it's just that it's going to continue to be paid for on the backs of the local property taxpayers," Carruth said.
If voters don't approve the tax, Poole said, the county also would have to look at cutting other programs and services to offset the debt cost.
Such programs as veterans services, libraries and parks would be vulnerable, because they are among programs that the county isn't required by law to fund, she said.
Carruth encouraged voters to inform themselves and review the Cabarrus County budget before casting their votes.
"Don't let outside groups tell the half-truths and mislead you into thinking our fiscal house is not in order, because it is in order," Carruth said.
In April the board of commissioners unanimously approved a resolution calling for the sales tax.
Polls will open at 6:30 a.m. Tuesday and close at 7:30 p.m. All voting precincts will be open.