“Voluntary tax” sounds like as much of an oxymoron as “dry lake.” But in Richmond County, the first seemingly contradictory phrase could be the solution for the second.
Ledbetter Lake property owners want the drained reservoir north of Rockingham replenished, and doing so requires repairs to cracks in an aging dam that could cost as much as $2.3 million. To fund the fix, they’ve asked county commissioners to borrow the money, then recoup it from homeowners over time in what’s called a special assessment.
North Carolina law didn’t give commissioners the authority to impose the assessment, so Richmond County’s board passed a resolution asking our local General Assembly delegation to change the law. State Sen. Gene McLaurin and Reps. Ken Goodman and Garland Pierce came through in a big way.
The N.C. Senate passed a bill Goodman filed to allow the assessment last week by a final vote of 40-4. House Bill 1033 now sits on Gov. Pat McCrory’s desk. Given the broad support it garnered in both chambers, we don’t anticipate a veto. McCrory is likely to sign the bill or allow it to become law without his signature.
The Ledbetter Lake assessment shows direct democracy at work. A group of homeowners concerned that property values may plummet and quality of life will decrease if the lake isn’t replenished got together and formed a corporation — Ledbetter Lake Dam Management Inc. — that purchased the lake for a nominal $1 fee.
Residents circulated a petition asking commissioners to borrow the funds for dam repairs and impose the special assessment on lake-adjacent landowners. To date, nearly three-quarters of the 136 property owners have signed on.
Commissioners voted on a resolution to request the Ledbetter legislation. McLaurin and Goodman filed identical bills in the House and Senate, and Goodman’s was the first to gain traction in committee. Lawmakers tag-teamed to move the bill forward, and both McLaurin and Goodman tell us they pestered leaders in their respective chambers to ensure that the measure would receive a vote before the short session wraps up.
If all goes according to plan, Richmond County will lay out for the Ledbetter Lake repairs and homeowners will pay back the loan — every penny of the principal and accrued interest — over time. That, to us, seems like a fair compromise.
County Manager Rick Sago is quick to point out that residents who do not own lakefront property will not be asked to chip in for the repairs. That’s as it should be.
“The only people who will pay for this repair are the people who live adjacent to the lake,” Sago told the Daily Journal for a story in Saturday’s newspaper.
Homeowners would see significant direct benefits if Ledbetter Lake is replenished. The water will buoy property values, boost the community’s appearance and, with fishing and recreational boating opportunities, will unquestionably lead to a better quality of life.
Some have questioned whether county government should be involved at all given that Ledbetter is now a private lake. But the more value the lakefront property has, the more tax revenue Richmond County will reap. That will allow county government to increase its funding for the services upon which all residents rely.
Private or public, the existence of a thriving lake filled with calm, crystal-blue water would still be a feather in the county’s cap. Taking out a loan that homeowners will repay in full doesn’t seem unreasonable. County taxpayers without land on the lake will not be asked to subsidize the Ledbetter project.
User fees are the fairest form of taxation. The folks who will see the greatest benefit from Ledbetter Lake are the ones who will foot the bill. Most lakefront homeowners agree that paying a little more for the amenity is worth it in the long run.