There could be no more graphic representation of the collision between unbridled growth, inadequate tax policies and the power of the real estate lobby than Derek Anderson’s pictures that go with this week’s cover story. On the cover, second graders play in dirt outside classroom trailers at eight-year-old Wakefield Elementary, which reached its capacity five years ago. Inside the paper, a worker rests outside a former Winn-Dixie that’s about to become a school for ninth graders because Wakefield High School is more than 700 students over capacity.
As Bob Geary’s article makes clear, Wake County has had its head in the sandbox about growth and schools for more than a decade, approving new developments at breakneck speed without adequate concern for how the schools would handle a student influx that’s now approaching 8,000 new students a year. But that’s old news. What’s new is the political gamesmanship that’s now on display in discussions of how to catch up with the demand and pay for it.
The short-term answer, as Wake School Board member Beverley Clark points out, is creation of a real estate transfer tax and impact fees on new construction. It can be done, as N&O reporter Ryan Teague Beckwith showed in a story about Dare County. The coastal county was in the midst of an expensive growth boom in the 1980s and adopted a 1 percent transfer tax that has paid for six schools and a new justice center. In Wake, a transfer tax plus a school impact fee would bring in almost $200 million a yearenough to borrow $2 billion without raising property taxes a penny.
But the real estate lobby wants to have its cupcakes and eat them, too. On the one hand, Realtors love to sell houses by boasting that Wake County has one of the finest school systems in the country. On the other, their PAC was the largest contributor to legislative campaigns in the 2006 election (the N.C. Home Builders PAC was fourth), according to Democracy North Carolina. And Realtors oppose the transfer tax because it will fall on their customers. Last month, a House Select Committee on Public School Construction scrapped from its draft report a proposal to let county commissioners hold local referenda on collecting a transfer tax, impact fees and adequate public facility fees. Making the motion to strike were Rep. Julia Howard, a Realtor, and Rep. Bruce Goforth, a contractor.
Now, Rep. Mickey Michaux of Durham has a bill pending that would allow counties to vote on whether to collect a transfer tax, impact fees and other local option levies. The real estate lobby is against it. But if you want to change the way the pictures look in this week’s issue, you’ll get in touch with legislators and let them know they should support it.