Lexington County leaders are taking the first steps toward a sales tax referendum, with the receipts to be used mainly for road improvements.
The plan could go to voters as soon as 2014.
Interest in the idea is spreading after the Legislature gave the go-ahead June 20 for a group of counties to seek a sales tax for a range of capital-improvement projects.
“We’d be foolish not to take a look at it,” County Council chairman Bill Banning of West Columbia said.
The push for the tax referendum comes amid increasing frustration at a financial squeeze that’s drying up state and federal money for upgrading heavily traveled roads in a steadily growing county.
The financially strained state Department of Transportation is delaying several projects indefinitely, suggesting that local officials look to other sources for help.
“There’s no other way to make many of these things happen,” County Councilman Johnny Jeffcoat of Irmo said of a local tax supporters say will benefit commuters and industry.
Support is building as political, business and neighborhood leaders conclude the tax seems the quickest way to keep pace with steady growth.
“At first blush, I think Lexington County has a lot of needs for infrastructure,” said Mike Flack, chairman of the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce. “This offers a possible solution.”
Some municipal leaders are championing the idea of a sales tax vote, particularly in communities where congestion is common.
“I’m encouraging a look at it,” Lexington Mayor Randy Halfacre said.
Three major routes converge in downtown Lexington, with plans for a bypass to relieve that a 30-year-old dream.
The tax increase would be a penny on the dollar, whose revenue would be earmarked for specific projects.
It could be used for many things besides roads, such as water supplies, sewers, buildings, parks and cultural and historic facilities.
But county leaders call roads the priority.
The first money from the tax spent could target bottlenecks in the Lexington and Red Bank areas with new routes, some county leaders suggest.
The money also could provide the final piece of assistance for a new entry to Columbia Metropolitan Airport off I-26, something long wanted by cargo haulers, they say.
But it can’t be used to expand limited bus service provided by the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority as is being sought in adjoining Richland County. The buses need money for operating expenses, not for capital improvements.
Developing a package of suggested improvements that the tax would pay for is in “the embryonic stage,” Halfacre said.
If adopted, the tax would expire every seven or eight years unless renewed by voters for a new set of improvements.
No preliminary estimate of revenue from the tax is available.
But the current sales tax of a penny on the dollar for county schools generates about $30 million a year. That tax, however, doesn’t apply to groceries. It is unclear if food would be exempt from a new tax.
The new tax was authorized after the General Assembly overrode Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of changes in local finance options that were supported by county and municipal officials across the state.
That measure repealed a ban on another sales tax in Lexington County.
It also omits some restrictions that county lawmakers wanted on the tax.
But House Republican Leader Kenny Bingham of Cayce said there is “a gentlemen’s understanding” that those guidelines will be followed. They include:
• The make-up of the package of improvements will be up to a six-member panel that county leaders would appoint. “Everyone will have a chance to put projects on the table,” Halfacre said. County Council could accept or reject the panel’s recommendations but not modify them.
• No tax on restaurant meals or other prepared foods could be imposed while the sales tax is in place.
• The tax could expire sooner than planned if all the work for which it is designated is complete.
• Money could not be switched among projects.
No project could proceed if its cost exceeds the amount allotted by voters.
Leaders of anti-tax groups are unhappy at the prospect of a new levy but some want to see what plan emerges.
Another tax “gives me pause,” but better roads are needed, said Allen Olsen of Irmo, a former leader of the Columbia Tea Party.
Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.