PENNY SALES TAX

Richland sales-tax vote may hinge on feelings about government

dhinshaw@thestate.com October 28, 2012 

  • How it works The additional penny-on-the-dollar tax, to 8 cents on the dollar, would apply in all areas of Richland County. It would be charged on most purchases, including groceries. Among the exceptions are food-stamp purchases, prescription drugs and school books. Collections would begin May 1, 2013. By law, the tax would end in 22 years or once it generated $1.07 billion, whichever came first. If voters approve the tax Nov. 6, Columbia City Council pledged to remove the 2-percent franchise fee it charges city residents on their utility bills; the fee now helps fund the bus system. Richland County Council already removed the yearly transit fee appearing on property-tax bills. The last time the sales tax was increased was in June 2007, by the state. How the tax breaks down $656 million (63 percent) to widen and improve roads $301 million (29 percent) to expand bus service $81 million (8 percent) to build sidewalks, bike lanes and walking trails through natural areas
  • By the numbers $1,523 What a typical family of 3 in Richland County pays per year in sales tax now $1,776 What the family would pay if the penny tax passes $253 The increase * All numbers are rounded SOURCE: S.C. Board of Economic Advisors

Richland County’s transportation sales-tax proposal puts voters like Clarence Williams in a corner. He knows the bus system needs upgrading, but to do that, he has to support $1 billion-worth of projects.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I do know this: They asked people for a bit much and they were all over the place with what it’s going to do and when it’s going to do it.

“But the people who ride the bus, they need something to happen right now,” said Williams, 62, a retired social worker who attended last week’s debate at the convention center.

In nine days, Richland County voters decide if there’s a crisis in the local transportation network, endorsing a penny tax or rejecting it as a money grab.

Leaders in both camps said the vote will be close. Two years ago, defeat of a similar measure came within a 2,200-vote margin.

Arguments for and against the tax repeat some themes from 2010.

Opponents say:

• The economy isn’t stable, and raising the sales tax to 8-cents-on-the-dollar would be most painful for the poor, particularly since it applies to groceries.

• The county over-reached. Instead of offering a tax to address the most pressing problems over five to 10 years, the council took a comprehensive approach — addressing roads, bus service, sidewalks, bike lanes and nature trails. The tax will last up to 22 years.

• The projects to be funded are conceptual. Road projects haven’t been designed. Some items on the list, like dirt-road paving, are merely a line item that don’t provide voters with a list to be accomplished. The lack of detail seems especially troubling to bus customers, who wouldn’t learn how service might change until after the Nov. 6 vote.

Supporters say:

• State and federal leaders aren’t going to address local transportation needs. Many were elected after signing pledges not to raise taxes. The proposal provides control at the city and county level, where leaders are most accessible.

• The sales tax provides a guaranteed revenue stream for the bus system, which is essential to the working poor. Not only that, improvements to be designed by the new director would create a system appealing to those who could drive but want a public transit option.

• New sidewalks, trails and bike lanes would provide a level of safety while bringing the community more in line with other progressive Southern cities. People want to be outdoors. Safe places to walk, run and bike — many concentrated around the university — are essential.

In the end, based on the civic conversation held over the past 11/2 months, the vote on the local sales tax for transportation may boil down to what people think about their government.

Some say they can’t trust city and county leaders to spend the money as they’ve outlined.

Others say a cynical anti-government movement is unraveling basic services.

Who benefits?

Columbia investor Joe Taylor said the chamber of commerce-backed campaign for a sales tax is fixed on attracting new business, but he’s concerned about the affect on existing business.

Shoppers, especially those buying big-ticket items, would turn to neighboring counties, he said.

“Most businesses are operating in razor-thin margins in this economy,” said Taylor, who ran the S.C. Department of Commerce under the Sanford administration. “The risks are huge, and it’s a 22-year bet.”

An economic forecast commissioned by the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce said the tax would produce 4,170 construction jobs plus 5,508 permanent new jobs. The new jobs were related to industrial sites made possible by extending Shop Road and two streets along Columbia’s riverfront, Greene and Williams.

Daniel Rickenmann said the chamber’s projections for jobs and $1.2 billion in economic activity are completely unrealistic.

“Everybody’s billed this as jobs, jobs, jobs. But those jobs are banked on speculation,” said Rickenmann, who sat on Columbia City Council until earlier this year.

Mike Sutton, who retired as an employment consultant for the S.C. Commission for the Blind, is worried about jobs, too — jobs held by people who travel by public transit.

He said further cuts to the bus system would be devastating. “A job’s not any good at all if you can’t get to it and you can’t get home.”

Dr. Charlie Davis said he’d be willing to raise the sales-tax by a third of a penny for the bus system.

But as a resident of Columbia, he said, he just doesn’t see the problem with local roads.

“Who’s responsible for our roads? I dunno. It looks like they’re doing it because the state hasn’t done it,” Davis said. “But are those things really needed during a down economy?”

‘Trust me’

Richland County Councilman Norman Jackson said the sales tax plan is flawed because the council didn’t pick which roads would be paved and resurfaced with $85 million included in the road plan.

Jackson, who hasn’t taken a position on the tax, said his constituents in Lower Richland have gotten the short end of the stick for the past 20 years on all kinds of service issues. “You can’t tell these people, ‘Trust me,’” he said. “They want to see what they’re going to get if they pay a tax for 22 years.”

Jackson also pressed his colleagues to repeal an annual $20 road-maintenance fee that’s been on the books in Richland County since 2002. The council put off a decision until after the election.

Heyward Bannister, the campaign manager for the chamber-backed Citizens for a Greater Midlands, said the trust issue has dogged the campaign, just as it did in 2010.

“That is a factor,” he acknowledged. “How much, I don’t know.”

Brett Bursey has a different take on it.

Bursey, with the S.C. Progressive Network, said his organization had long and heated debates over supporting the sales tax, which hits poor people hardest.

“The winning argument was that the reason we should support a regressive tax is the anti-tax, anti-government mentality that dominates the state and federal governments,” he said.

“We keep electing people who are against government to run our government, and then they won’t fund our government,” Bursey said. “And then they step back and say, ‘See, it doesn’t work.’”

If bus service isn’t provided at the local level, he said, it just won’t get done.

Richland County Council, which developed the sales-tax proposal, hasn’t discussed how to fund bus service if voters reject the measure a second time.

Campaign notebook

Voters have been more engaged on the sales tax issue this year.

There were more meetings, more discussions and more publicity, what with a $50,000 informational effort mounted by county government.

Spokeswoman Stephany Snowden said she’s spent money on urban, country, Spanish-speaking and talk radio to publicize community meetings on the ballot question. She took out newspaper and TV ads. Last week, more than 60,000 mailers went out, guiding people to the county’s website for information.

Altogether, county staff attended 36 community meetings in the past two months, Snowden said.

Bannister said the privately funded pro-penny campaign has a budget of $200,000.

Don Weaver, with Not Another Penny, said the group has probably raised $1,000. “It’s definitely a David and Goliath fight.”

There’s one factor in the Nov. 6 vote that neither side can control, and that’s the effect of the race for president on the sales-tax vote.

Compared with the 2010 vote, this year’s presidential election should add 23,000 to 25,000 Richland County voters.

Since Richland County tends to vote Democrat, that should mean more votes for the sales tax, chamber executive Ike McLeese said.

But Weaver said a tightening race for president could spell trouble for those supporting the sales tax.

“It may just be a rising tide of skepticism against politicians in general,” he said. “If there’s a rising tide, we’re going to float it.”

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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