The news that Forsyth County commissioners are cool with letting voters decide whether to raise taxes on themselves isn’t all that remarkable. After all, a similar gambit was tried before, in 2018.

Voters in no uncertain terms shot down a proposal to add a quarter-cent to the sales-tax rate to help pay debt on a spiffy new $120 million courthouse — despite public support and private pleadings offered by movers and shakers.

Read Our Lips … No New (Sales) Tax, said 130,000 county voters by a 2-to-1 margin.

So what makes county leaders — commissioners, school-board members and business types — think this go-round will be any different?

Their stated purpose: providing badly needed pay raises for teachers.

Voting down a new courthouse to be populated by lawyers is one thing. Turning thumbs down to underpaid teachers is entirely another.

Unless or until you drill down into the details.

Non-binding provisions

In a completely predictable unanimous decision, members of the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously last week to put a proposed quarter-cent local sales tax increase on the ballot come March 3, which happens to be primary voting day.

The idea, they pledged, would be to use the money raised — maybe $13 million annually — to boost higher supplemental pay for teachers. Such an increase in the local supplement would put Forsyth in the top five school systems for that added bump.

Who could possibly oppose hiking teacher pay? Not me. Big picture, they deserve a local bump and a lot more.

Ah, but the devil, as always, lurks in the details. And under a strange (and correctable) quirk in state law that pertains to such things, county officials can’t commit explicitly to spending the dough on teacher pay.

All they can do is pinky swear that’s the path they’d take, cross their hearts and hope to get re-elected. Which is why commissioners added a provision to their resolution that’s exactly what they’re going to do IF the local sales tax passes.

(Ditto for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools Board of Education that, in its public declaration of love and fealty, included this nugget: “Whereas, the revenues generated from the approval of the sales tax referendum will be used entirely for educational purposes … .”)

Except that none of those provisions are binding in the strictest sense.

A future board of commissioners could, in theory, divert that $13 million to plug shortfalls, hike deputy pay, build a water park or just about anything their little un-crossed hearts desire.

What happens in a recession?

The politics of diverting money raised from a sales tax that politicians promised would go to teachers would be messy, unwise in the extreme, and pretty darn unlikely.

Heck, even Gloria Whisenhunt, a Republican commissioner and a noted conservative, voted in favor of allowing the sales-tax referendum.

What Future Grinch would snatch money away from teachers?

No one.

But what could happen is recession. Tax revenue might not match projections. Commissioners might be tempted to plug a shortfall by shifting the sales-tax revenue meant for teachers. Unlikely, yes. Still, stranger things have happened.

For now, though, take commissioners at their word. Raising teacher pay — and that of counselors, bus drivers and classroom aides — is worthy and needs doing.

To sweeten the deal for voters inclined to thumbs-down any whiff of tax increase, commissioners also indicated they’d be amenable to rolling back 1 cent off the county property-tax rate of 75.35 cents per $100 of taxable property.

In practical terms, that would mean the owner of a house valued at $150,000 would save a whopping $15 off an annual tax bill of $1,130.25. If that comes to pass, be careful with that windfall. Don’t spend it all in one place.

There are other ways to encourage public support, of course. The same elected officials who promised to spend the money on local supplemental pay could, say, make an additional pledge to see that revenue goes to the people who actually do the work — teachers, assistants, counselors, bus drivers, etc. — and not to the cadre of administrators populating central office.

It’s just a thought.

There’s plenty of time between now and March 3 to make a case. And plenty of time afterward to make sure officials hold to promises made.

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ssexton@wsjournal.com

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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