UPDATE: Support for Richland sales-tax gains solid lead

dhinshaw@thestate.com November 7, 2012 

Lawn signs for and against the penny sales tax are pictured outside Kilbourne Park Baptist Church in Columbia on election day in November 2012.

GERRY MELENDEZ — gmelendez@thestate.com Buy Photo

  • Penny sales tax results 104 of 124 precincts Question 1: Raising the tax Yes: 64,190 No: 55,452 Question 2: Borrowing the money Yes: 61,616 No: 54,119

— Passage of a Richland County’s sales tax gained a solid lead early Wednesday, holding a more than 10,000 vote advantage with with 84 percent of precincts reporting.

Ballot counting in Richland County was delayed by numerous problems with voting machines on Tuesday.

Approval of the local tax would restore bus service among a vast array of transportation improvements in the $1 billion plan.

Both sides said they expected a close vote, though the heavy turnout for president ultimately may bode well for the tax in the state’s hotbed of Democratic activity.

The tax – which voters narrowly defeated in 2010 – would widen and build roads, expand bus service and extend miles of sidewalks, bike lanes and trails. It would be collected for 22 years.

It would make Richland County at least the ninth S.C. county to impose a tax to pay for transportation fixes. Even fiscally conservative Lexington County plans to take up the issue in two years.

Supporters, working through the Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce, said the penny would provide local control at a time when state and federal governments are paring back grants to local government. They also promised the plan would create thousands of new jobs and make streets safer.

They greeted Election Day with a sense of confidence, knowing many who opposed the tax two years ago had switched sides, political consultant Rick Silver said.

“Traditional wisdom tells you a heavy turnout is better for issues like this,” he said.

A tight margin, though, would signal that voters wanted to support essential bus service but still had reservations about how the county would spend the majority of the money, said Tige Watts, a political consultant not involved in the campaign.

Chamber executive Ike McLeese said this year’s campaign was different in that people had more information and were able to get their questions answered.

Still, the issue was dogged by opponents’ claims that County Council couldn’t be trusted, that members could tinker with the project lists advertised during the campaign. A lack of detail – particularly on improvements to bus service – made some voters uneasy.

“Despite plenty of paid consultants, the county still could not explain to voters how the money would be spent,” said taxpayer advocate Don Weaver. “That’s what I hear from most people who are on the fence.”

But bus director Bob Schneider said he heard civil discussions at the community meetings he attended.

“People want a good bus system. They want a good road system,” he said. “Nobody wants to be the third city in South Carolina … behind Charleston and Greenville. They want to be big. They want to be great.”

This weekend, the Not Another Penny group Weaver founded raised about $2,000, which it spent on additional yard signs.

A TV advertisement aired, too.

Weaver said he felt momentum shifting.

But the chamber of commerce-supported campaign had a budget of $200,000, campaign manager Heyward Bannister said. It sent out a mailer over the weekend and produced telephone messages, with Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin reminding people to vote.

Tuesday night, Bannister said he had people posted at 80 of the county’s 124 precincts, hoping for on-site information on the vote count.

Those hopes were dashed, though, after it became clear precincts were overwhelmed by voters in long lines.

“It looks like a lot of polling places are going to be late with the tallies,” he said.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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