Penny sales tax back on table

Richland panel wants 20-year commitment for roads, buses, bike and pedestrian pathways

June 12, 2012 

Richland County voters would be asked this fall to approve a 20-year, one-penny sales tax increase that would raise nearly $1 billion to improve the bus system, upgrade roads and extend pedestrian and bicycle pathways if a committee gets its way.

The advisory Joint Transportation Committee, which is comprised of politicians and business leaders, on Monday rejected a slightly larger, $1.1 billion package that would have carried a 25-year commitment for patrons who shop in the county. That effort died quickly after a representative of the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce said flatly that the business organization would not support a 25-year commitment.

Richland County Council, which must approve whether to have a referendum in November, is to take up the plan Wednesday in a work session. Already under a tight schedule to get the measure on the ballot, County Council is slated to give a final vote and hold a public hearing next Tuesday.

Ultimately, voters will settle the question of raising the sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent.

In 2010, in the middle of the Great Recession, the sales tax increase failed by a mere 2,000 votes.

Pat Noble, a transportation consultant who was a proponent of the tax increase two years ago, cautioned the committee to recommend fewer years.

“There are issues of trust out there,” said Noble, who was substituting for committee member Caroline Whitson, the departing president of Columbia College. “Other counties seem to be more successful with shorter periods of time. Get the projects done, prove themselves (to taxpayers) and then come back (for a second increase). On a day-to-day basis, people are looking at their pocketbooks.”

Real estate broker and former member of the chamber’s executive committee Doug Bridges told the panel, “Twenty years is what we feel the maximum should be to make it work.”

Consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff recommended against an increase of less than a full penny.

For roadways

In recommending a $939 million package on Monday, the committee raised the share of the money that would go to resurfacing and building roads to 71 percent of the total, up from a consultant’s recommendation of 65 percent. That total amount is $664.1 million of the $939 million.

With the backing of that much public money, the county would be able to issue up to $450 million in bonds over the life of the tax to finance projects, bond attorney Frannie Heizer told the committee. Big improvement projects would likely not occur in the first few years, she said. But most should be accomplished by the 10th year of the sales tax increase.

Richland County Councilman Kelvin Washington has said the referendum, unlike in 2010, would contain assurances that a paving list would be strictly adhered to by council. However, county administrator Milton Pope said that because the referendum includes money for the transit system and pathways – not just roads – a strict priority list would not be mandatory under the law.

Committee chairman Paul Livingston warned the group that by cutting the number of years by five and the total by $179 million some projects would be lost, which might affect how the public would vote. “What are you going to cut out? That’s also going to change the folks’ minds, too.”

The committee made its decision by voice vote. None of the recommendations was decided by roll-call vote.

With roads taking the lion’s share of the money, the committee became entangled in a debate driven by Washington, who sought to add $56.6 million to the total. The committee opted to keep the cap as it is but leave it to County Council to decide whether it would move the fund around so that $35.5 million more would go to resurfacing dirt roads and $21 million more would go toward paving damaged roads.

In making its changes, the committee took money from the bus system and greenways. The share for the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority dropped to 25 percent from the suggested 29 percent. The portion for pedestrians and bicyclers plummeted to 4 percent from the recommended 6 percent.

For buses

In dollars, that means the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority would receive $234.7 million over the 20-year life of the sales tax increase. That translates to $11.7 million yearly.

CMRTA director Bob Schneider said that would be sufficient because the transit authority could use portions of the money as matching funds to receive even more federal grants.

The CMRTA had requested $331 million from the 20-year sales tax increase.

Pope pointed out to Schneider that at nearly $235 million for 20 years, “That would mean we would be more than doubling the temporary funding we have now.” Currently, every vehicle owner in the county contributes to the CMRTA through an annual fee and council has added other interim financing.

Betty Gregory, another chamber representative, asked whether reducing money for buses undercut what she said was the chief goal of the sales tax increase.

For trails, pathways

Money for walking and biking trails would amount to $40.1 million. That’s about $25.6 million less than Parsons Brinckerhoff suggested.

The committee rejected a proposal from the River Alliance to add $8.2 million to build the Saluda Riverwalk, which would allow outdoor enthusiasts to walk or bike from the USC baseball park along the Columbia Canal to Riverbanks Zoo.

“If this comes on (the projects list), something else drops off,” said committee member Ted Speth, a senior partner with the Ogletree Deakins law firm.

Livingston said he preferred to cut funding for pathways by smaller amounts than the committee chose.

Below is a draft list of some of the first priority expenditures proposed in a new 1-percent sales tax in Richland County.
Draft Penny Tax expenditures

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664

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