Columbia residents and businesses no longer would pay a 2 percent fee on their utility bills if voters this fall approve a one-penny-on-the-dollar increase in sales taxes in Richland County, City Council decided Tuesday.
In a 7-0 vote, City Council went on record to blunt questions and complaints that the city would be “double-dipping” by collecting the fee increase it adopted in February 2011 to help keep buses running as well reaping the revenue from the additional sales tax.
Mayor Steve Benjamin said opponents of a second referendum on Nov. 6 have been “demagogueing” the notion of city residents paying twice for buses. Councilwoman Leona Plaugh said she had received “there you go again” complaints from some constituents.
Others on council said they only had been asked whether residents would pay both sums.
Tuesday’s vote occurred when council took up an item on its agenda listed only as: Richland County Transportation Penny. There were no accompanying documents to show that council intended to vote on the utility fee known as a “franchise fee.”
Council had adopted an increase from 3 percent to 5 percent to the fee on utility bills to stabilize funding for buses after voters narrowly rejected the penny sales tax increase in November 2010. SCE&G pays the city the fee for access to public rights of way for its power lines. The utility company, in turn, passes the fee to its customers.
The 3 percent portion would remain in place if voters approve the sales tax increase.
All the money the 2 percent generates – almost $4 million each of the past two years – is earmarked for Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority, which oversees bus operations.
If the penny sales tax increase is approved, it would generate a projected $1.17 billion during the next 20 years. Almost 30 percent of that total would go for improvements of bus operations and other transit needs. The sales tax would provide CMRTA the first permanent, long-term income for its struggling bus system.