Bolton: Raising the Richland County sales tax: It’s just too much

Associate EditorOctober 17, 2012 

Richland County officials hope that voters, who rejected a proposal two years ago to increase the sales tax by a penny on the dollar to fund the public bus system, roads and sidewalks, will have a change of heart Nov. 6. On Tuesday, Associate Editor Warren Bolton outlined the argument in support of the ballot measure. Today, he takes the opposite side.

SUPPORTERS OF a proposed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase to pay for roads, bike paths, sidewalks and other projects argue that this community should dig deep and invest in itself.

And they are right — to a point.

Few dispute the need to provide permanent funding to improve and expand the woeful Midlands bus system.

And although it’s still not clear that local officials have genuinely considered every other alternative, it wouldn’t be surprising if voters were willing to raise the sales tax by a fourth or half a penny if that’s the only way to keep the buses operating.

Frankly, that should be the question on the Nov. 6 ballot, if any. After all, the reason Richland County even began discussing a sales tax hike was to fund buses.

But what started out as a legitimate need to provide permanent funding for buses morphed into a $1 billion money grab, largely to pay for roads. The bike paths, sidewalks and other projects are mere trinkets thrown in to appease certain groups that might otherwise oppose the effort.

When you add it all together, it is simply too much. It’s too much to add yet another penny on the dollar to the already-too-high sales tax. The sales tax in Richland County is 7 cents on the dollar for most items; if you’re buying prepared food from a restaurant or supermarket deli, add two pennies per dollar more. Paying 8 percent to 10 percent in sales tax is unacceptable.

In these still-tough economic times, it’s too much to burden families with a higher sales tax and put local retailers at a greater disadvantage in comparison to nearby or even online competitors.

While the buses would receive enough funding to vastly improve service and plan for the future, it’s quite clear they are simply along for the ride, mere pawns in this grand attempt by Columbia and Richland County officials, along with business and community leaders, to get county voters to sign off on a massive road-building spree.

Instead of uniting the entire community around the need to fund the bus system, they divided bus supporters by adding their lengthy wish list to the mix.

This plan calling for widening streets and constructing new intersections and building bike paths and sidewalks includes some good things. But it’s not the case that everything that is good is necessary.

You could argue that some of it is counter productive even. For example, widening already-congested roads only invites more car traffic and would counteract one of the goals of expanding bus service into the suburbs: getting drivers to park their cars and ride, easing traffic and pollution.

But a full 63 percent of the proposed $1 billion will be dedicated to road projects. Although the county has identified a so-called high-priority list, officials say they don’t know which of those projects will be the first to be constructed or even when, despite a request for voters to allow the county to borrow $450 million up front. And although County Council has approved the creation of an oversight committee that would make recommendations about the projects, the fact is that the council still has the final say.

Can we really trust County Council, with its poor history of keeping tabs on a priority list for paving dirt roads, to do what it pledges?

And once these roads and sidewalks and bike paths and green spaces are built, whose responsibility will it be to maintain them? Where will that money come from? Are we setting ourselves up for a big surprise, as Richland County did when it OK’d $50 million in new parks construction only to have the Recreation Commission come back and say it now needs money — unbudgeted, mind you — to staff and equip the parks?

And while we certainly need a better bus system, there is even less clarity about what will happen with the $300 million that will flow into the Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority’s coffers over the next 22 years than what will happen with roads and other projects. We need more than a broad outline that proposes smaller buses, cheaper and more efficient fuel, new bus shelters and a couple of park and rides. Where are the specifics? Where are these buses going? How much more accessible will they be?

Also, the public needs to know what the plan is for determining how the system will be managed, and who will manage it. At some point, bus operations are supposed to be bid out. When will that happen? In the meantime, what are we to expect from Veolia Transportation Services, which in the past has refused to provide an itemized accounting of how public money that flows to it is spent?

It appears that those pushing for this sales tax increase learned little from voters’ rejection of it in 2010. Why else place essentially the same question on the ballot this year?

Why not take a different approach, such as asking for a portion of a penny just for the buses? Or, if they must have a full penny, reducing the collection period to seven or even 10 years? Yes, that would yield far less money than desired, but it would give the county an opportunity to prove itself and earn the public’s trust. After the seven or 10 years, it could ask voters to extend the tax.

Instead, officials have chosen this all-or-nothing approach that has placed this community’s collective back against the wall.

It never should have come to this.

When the bus service was transferred into public hands by SCE&G in 2002, everyone knew they had to find a long-term funding source. No one did.

Instead, local governments, knowing that their options for raising revenue for bus service were limited, spent their political capital on a local-option sales tax to offset property taxes, and the 2 percent sales tax on prepared foods. There was no attempt to get voter support for the bus system — until now, after the sales tax has been overly burdened.

Fiscal responsibility and the need for balanced, diverse revenue streams suggest it’s not wise to add yet more pressure to the sales tax. Which brings us back to the question: Is the only way to guarantee funding for the bus system to pass the sales tax?

Why not continue Columbia’s utility franchise fee and the vehicle fee Richland County has used the past several years? If there is a need for more, increase those fees or find another stream; the city and county have never pushed hard enough to get the Legislature to allow the use of hospitality taxes or some other funding source for transit.

No, none of those are as simple as raising the sales tax. But there is nothing simple about raising a sales tax to pay for extras in an environment in which we can only afford those things that are absolutely necessary. For us, that’s the bus system.

But voters don’t have the option of voting just for the bus system. Instead — unless they want to widen Hard Scrabble and build new sidewalks — many are being forced to vote against it. And many will.

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

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