Richland penny sales tax: Why now? why not?

dhinshaw@thestate.comNovember 4, 2012 

lawn signs for and against the Penny Sales tax

Lawn signs for and against the penny sales tax on Oct. 9, 2012

RACHAEL MYERS LOWE — rlowe@thestate.com Buy Photo

Tuesday, Richland County’s ballot includes a question about the future.

Are residents willing to tax themselves for the next 22 years to pay for road construction, bus service and miles of sidewalks, bike lanes and trails?

Or is tomorrow too uncertain to take on additional expense?

Here, we have put together some of the most prevalent arguments being debated about the proposal, which would raise the sales tax to 8 cents on the dollar to generate $1 billion.

Why now?

At long last, the tax would provide stable funding for the bus system, which endured big service cuts in May. Now thousands of people need the buses to get to work, the doctor, the grocery store. Many envision a modern, convenient system appealing to people who might choose public transit over driving.

Why not?

There’s too much uncertainty on how the money from the tax would be used. The Central Midlands Regional Transit Authority has general goals for better bus service but no specifics. There’s an advertised list of road projects, but nothing to keep the county from adjusting it. Further, there’s no detail on millions set aside for roads — including which dirt roads would be paved.

Why now?

Don’t expect state or federal officials to fix local roads. They have their own problems. The state Legislature hasn’t raised the gasoline tax since 1987, and the federal government is trying to rein in grants to states. A transportation sales tax would provide local control.

Why not?

At 22 years, the tax would last too long. Richland County should have done what other counties have: Complete a short list of priority projects over seven to 10 years, then return to voters with a good track record.

Why now?

Construction generated by the sales tax would create and support thousands of jobs. Furthermore, the county would see to it that local firms, minority-owned firms and small companies get preference.

Why not?

The economy is still unstable. The sales tax hits poor people hardest, especially this one, which applies to the purchase of groceries. According to the S.C. Board of Economic Advisors, the additional sales tax would mean an extra $253 a year for the average family of three in Richland County.

Why now?

People want to be outdoors. They want to be able to walk and ride bikes to stores, schools and parks near their homes. They deserve safe places to walk and ride. Pedestrian deaths have spiked in Richland County, reaching a five-year high of 11 people killed so far this year.

Why not?

The sales-tax discussion started as a way to stabilize essential bus service, but evolved into a grandiose plan. It would extend three streets — Greene and Williams streets near the Columbia riverfront and Shop Road on the south side of town — for speculative economic development projects. The sidewalks, bike lanes and nature trails would be nice, but are not essential to the transportation network.

Why now?

Interest is low and companies need work, so voters should answer “yes” to a second ballot question allowing the county to borrow up to $450 million. That would allow quick work on multiple projects. The county would repay the bonds with proceeds from the sales tax.

Why not?

Government needs to work within its budget. The county should take a pay-as-you-go approach to construction projects, doing the work over the 22-year life of the sales tax.

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