Bolton: A novel idea

Associate EditorNovember 7, 2010 

IT SHOULDN’T BE a big surprise that Richland County voters defeated a proposed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase.

I say that for reasons beyond the obvious, which include concerns about raising taxes during a down economy and fear that County Council wouldn’t stick to a proposed schedule of road improvements, sidewalks and bike paths.

While those and other factors — “I don’t ride the buses” — weighed heavily in the defeat of the proposed increase, the fact is that history wasn’t on its side. Richland County voters don’t greet sales tax increases well at the ballot box.

It took four attempts (1990, 1993, 2001 and 2004) before voters approved the local option sales tax that offsets property taxes. And although county voters approved the largest school construction bond in state history for Richland District 1 in 2002, they rejected a penny increase in the sales tax that would have been used to pay for school construction costs in Richland 1 as well as Richland 2 and Lexington-Richland 5.

But Tuesday’s vote was so close that some of the elected, business and community leaders who led the charge for the new tax want to try it again come 2012, thinking that, with more education and a bigger push, people will respond to the overriding need to keep the buses on the street and approve the penny increase.

Looking back at the multiple attempts to pass the local option sales tax might be instructional: Voters didn’t approve that tax until they felt assured that the council wouldn’t squander any of the proceeds.

When the local option sales tax failed the first time, it wasn’t as big a deal because it was a new concept that failed in most counties. But I’m convinced it failed in subsequent attempts because voters weren’t comfortable with giving the county access to millions in discretionary dollars. The percentages changed over the years, but today only 71 percent of the proceeds must go toward property tax reduction; the county decides what happens to what’s left.

Each time County Council presented the local option sales tax, it was fuzzy about exactly how the balance would be spent. The public feared the council would use it as a slush fund — understandably, since the council kept promising to spend it on broad categories such as “community projects.”

After voters rejected the sales tax by a 4-to-1 margin in 1990, the council began trying to come up with ways to spend the money that were acceptable to the public. Each vote got closer. In 1993, it was defeated 2-to-1. In 2001, it went down 54 percent to 46 percent.

It wasn’t until the county promised that 100 percent of the tax would be used to roll back property taxes that voters approved the local option. The measure passed by fewer than 1,500 votes out of 121,288 cast.

Now, I understand that the transportation sales tax is different from local option. But if the county is to have any chance of getting this tax plan passed as is, it’s going to have to give a little to get, well, a lot. We are talking about a billion dollars over about 25 years, after all.

County Council has to clarify things for voters and even offer tradeoffs to get buy-in.

For starters, Columbia and Richland County should drop their 2 percent tax on prepared food to 1 percent. That won’t be a dollar-for-dollar swap, but it would be a good-faith gesture. It also would keep the tax on food purchased at restaurants and supermarket delis below 10 percent.

In addition, County Council should put as much as possible in black and white, pledging to stick to the plan. We know priorities can change with time and elected leaders come and go. But the promise here must be no shenanigans.

Those still might not convince voters. But there’s another option that might: Alter the plan.

The county could shorten the duration of the tax from 25 years to something much more palatable. That means the list of projects would have to be trimmed while the percentage set aside for the bus system — 33 percent under the current plan — would have to remain the same, if not be increased.

Several other communities approved referendums for transportation on Tuesday even as Richland voters were sending a note of rejection. In Aiken County, voters approved a sales tax for the third time. Voters first authorized the tax in 2000, then renewed it in 2004. Though that doesn’t expire until 2012, officials held a vote Tuesday to allow the tax to continue when the current one expires in two years.

Here’s a lesson: Having that shorter period serves as a check on the bodies that handle the money. They know that if they take the wrong step, they could endanger future funding.

The members of the Richland County Transportation Study Commission, whose recommendations formed that basis of the 25-year, $1 billion request on Tuesday’s ballot, actually suggested that the county break the package the study panel developed into pieces, with the first of three phases to rely on a sales tax that would expire in eight years, or after $521.5 million was collected.

Aiken officials decided up front to ask for a little with hopes of getting a lot over time rather than ask for a lot and risk getting nothing. Those officials have, over time, gained the trust of the electorate.

Government building trust with the people to get buy-in. Now that’s a novel idea.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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