Bolton: Lexington County’s penny sales tax plan must please enough voters

Associate EditorFebruary 21, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— WHILE IT’S true that government can’t be all things to all people, Lexington County is going to have to try to come close if it’s going to convince voters to approve a proposed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase for infrastructure improvements.

When taxes of this sort are proposed, people naturally ask, “What’s in it for me?” Just ask practically every jurisdiction that has approved a capital improvement or transportation tax, and they’ll tell you they had to appease voters across their jurisdictions in one way or another.

That certainly was true in Richland County, where voters approved a transportation sales tax that is being used to operate the public bus system as well as to improve roads and build sidewalks, bike paths and other projects across the county.

In Lexington, the county, municipalities and other entities have proposed nearly 400 ideas for new roads, buildings, parks and other improvements. The requests add up to more than twice the $300 million the proposed tax is expected to generate over eight years.

Decisions. Decisions.

You can imagine the potential jockeying and lobbying that might occur in an effort to get favored projects approved. Fortunately, the elected Lexington County Council isn’t having to make those choices.

Richland’s council was knee deep into that kind of decision-making, leading to horse trading and favoritism — and some distrust from voters. As a matter of fact, Richland’s penny-on-the-dollar increase didn’t make the ballot in 2008 because council members got into a spat about what projects would be funded and what areas would benefit most. The measure was ultimately approved in 2012, but only after a narrow defeat in 2010.

In Lexington’s case, it’s the job of the county’s Penny for Progress Commission, an independent body, to winnow down the packed list. The panel is to assemble a list of eligible public projects, rank them and prioritize them; the final list would be placed before voters in a referendum on Nov. 4. While Lexington County Council must decide whether the question goes on the ballot, it can’t change the commission’s work.

But be warned: The independent commission is sure to be lobbied by County Council as well as elected municipal leaders, voters and others. The project selection and prioritization process bears watching.

Don’t get me wrong. We should expect local bodies to present strong arguments as to why their projects should make the cut. If they can’t, then they never should have proposed them.

Invariably, though, there will be those that can’t be justified, and it’s the commission’s job to toss those out. In addition, with such a long list, there could be many worthwhile projects that simply aren’t affordable right now.

And since the capital improvement tax can be used for just about any public project — from roads to courthouses to fire stations to jails to recreational facilities — weighing one against the other won’t be easy.

No doubt, the panel will use criteria such as how critical a project is to public safety or economic development or quality of life, among other things. But we know some of that is subjective.

Some county officials understandably would like for most of the money to go toward road improvements. Lexington has lots of roads and traffic problems (can you say congestion?) and long has lamented not having a funding source to address them. Many of the 14 towns and cities are seeking intersection improvements; county officials are proposing large projects such as a new entry for Columbia Metropolitan Airport off I-26.

The list of competing projects includes a water recreation park in Springdale, an Irmo-area complex to train youngsters on safety, a 600-seat performing-arts auditorium at Chapin High School, a welcome center for a park in Cayce, athletic fields and recreation facilities in Dixiana, Gaston, Pelion and Pine Ridge, new town halls for Batesburg-Leesville, Cayce, Gaston, Pelion, South Congaree and Springdale, as well as regional centers for deputies, ambulances and other services near Batesburg-Leesville and in Dixiana.

When voters go to the polls in Lexington County, they’ll know exactly what the sales tax would be spent on. The list can’t be changed.

In Richland County, although a list was established, it wasn’t — and still hasn’t been — prioritized, meaning there’s no guarantee that Richland’s council’s will follow through with exactly what was proposed. Even after voters approved the sales tax increase, many remain concerned about how the construction program will be managed.

But don’t just assume the Lexington referendum would waltz through to approval. Remember, Lexington County is home to some factions with strong anti-tax leanings that have caused quite a stir in times past. Be ready for the charge that a 14 percent increase in the sales tax is unacceptable.

I must admit that it’s always a concern when the sales tax is raised in South Carolina because the state and local governments have been placing such increased burden on what is a volatile funding source. Lexington County’s sales tax would rise from 7 percent to 8 percent on the dollar. Next door in Richland County, you pay as much as 10 percent on some items because of the 2 percent sales tax on prepared food.

Of course, Lexington County, while still conservative and tax conscious, is more progressive and pragmatic than it used to be. With its population having grown by 22 percent over the past decade and service and infrastructure demands on the rise, the county has to do something.

County leaders see the proposed capital improvement tax as a key part of the solution. The question is whether voters will agree.

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

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