New Lexington County tax could pay for aquatics, safety centers

tflach@thestate.comFebruary 16, 2014 

Two projects – an aquatics playground and safety training center – differ significantly from other improvements in Lexington County that might be paid for by a proposed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax.

Both qualify as new types of economic development that will bring tourism to the Midlands, supporters say.

The pair are exceptions to the list on nearly 200 projects submitted for consideration.

Most ideas are for roads, sidewalks, town halls, water and sewer facilities, parks, trails, libraries, parking, sports fields and drainage.

Those requests reflect an emphasis by county leaders on earmarking tax revenue for long-wanted improvements frustrated by lack of money.

The tax increase should be reserved for “improving basic services through projects that otherwise can’t get done,” County Councilman Bill Banning of West Columbia said.

A six-member advisory panel will start winnowing the list this spring, developing it into a package for an expected referendum on the tax Nov. 4.

The tax, if approved, is expected to generate up to $300 million over eight years, with groceries and prescription medicine exempt. Its average annual cost would be about $130 per resident.

Requests for which an estimated cost is known so far surpass $500 million.

Here’s an outline on the pair of projects:

Aquatic center: The facility would put both Springdale and the county on the map, town leaders say.

It would be “a much-needed local destination spot,” Mayor Michael Bishop said.

Plans include a heated pool that could be enclosed in winter as well as play areas like a splash pad and wave pond.

The $20 million project would be located on 20 acres in a town best known as a neighbor of Columbia Metropolitan Airport.

It’s a quiet community of 2,600 residents that is largely invisible, Bishop said. “Springdale is a place you drive through but don’t go there unless you live there.”

The center would spur residential and commercial growth and redevelopment, he said.

“I wanted to come up with something that would attract younger families to move and raise their families here,” Bishop said. “I also believe this will be the spark that the town needs to get businesses to want to invest here.”

Such playgrounds are operated by private and public sources.

The center is competing with two dozen proposals in the West Metro area that are mostly water, sewer and drainage upgrades.

Safety village: The project would enhance fire safety training for youngsters and adults, Irmo Fire District chief Mike Sonefeld said.

Providing that instruction increasingly is a challenge, he said.

“We’re not doing it well,” Sonefeld said. “It’s a daunting task.”

The project fits in the emphasis on improving services, supporters say.

“This is the meat and potatoes of what a fire district should do,” Sonefeld said.

The facility could be used not only for fire safety training but for crime and cyber-bullying prevention, supporters said.

Fire officials are interested in the idea because “we’re a catch-all for everything” in calls for help and inquiries from 40,000 residents in a 22-square-mile district in the northeast corner of the county, Sonefeld said.

Its price tag is $7 million, but it could begin on a smaller scale, he said.

There are about three dozen such facilities in the nation and Canada, with the nearest in suburban Atlanta.

The proposal is competing with less than a dozen others in the Irmo area that include extending the Three Rivers Greenway along the lower Saluda River and classroom renovations at two schools.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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