Group reunites to promote proposed Lexington County tax

tflach@thestate.comMarch 9, 2014 

— A coalition of business and political leaders who rescued Amazon for Lexington County is reuniting to promote a proposed penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for road improvements and other projects.

“It’s a new project for pretty much the same team,” consultant Scott Adams said.

Adams, a former executive for a telecommunications cable manufacturer, was among the group that rallied support to give a tax break in 2011 for online retailer Amazon to open a distribution center near Cayce, after the proposal lost initially.

The effort for the tax is starting early as the go-ahead for a Nov. 4 referendum on it is yet to be given.

“We know it’s coming,” said former Lexington mayor Randy Halfacre, president of the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce. “We’re gearing up to educate our populace on the opportunity before them.”

Commentaries and appearances championing the idea are happening even though it will be this summer before it’s known what projects the tax would finance and whether the referendum will happen.

“It’s not a full-court press, but it doesn’t hurt to have positive spin on it occasionally this far ahead,” County Council chairman Johnny Jeffcoat said.

It’s clear that the tax is the only way to make long-wanted improvements happen, those involved in the push say.

“Nobody wants an increase in property taxes and a realistic effort to find money for infrastructure needs through such things as consolidation of public services, tax reform or even an increase in the gas tax for roads is not going to happen any time soon,” Adams said.

The pro-tax push – known as People for Lexington’s Penny – developed after scattered attacks on the proposal and emergence of anti-tax candidates in upcoming elections.

Selling a new tax promises to be challenging in a county known for fiscal conservatism, but it’s doable once voters recognize there is no other choice to pay for the demands of steady growth, Halfacre said.

Other community leaders say the make-up of the package is vital for it to have a chance of approval at the ballot.

“If it’s fixing basic needs, it will get consideration,” Irmo Mayor Hardy King said. “If it’s too much wish list and not what is really necessary, then it won’t.”

Nearly 400 projects are competing for a share of the proposed tax.

Those ideas total $772 million, more than twice the $300 million the tax is estimated to generate over eight years.

The new penny could be used for roads, sidewalks, water and sewer facilities, drainage, buildings, parks, trails, libraries, parking and other projects.

Jeffcoat and other council members are pressing for road improvements to dominate the package to ease traffic congestion and increase safety in the steadily growing 720-square-mile county that is home for an estimated 270,000 residents.

The Irmo area may be an exception to that emphasis.

Only a handful of small road improvements have been proposed in that area. The bulk of requests are for recreation, such as a walking path along the lower Saluda River and a theater at Saluda Shoals Park, as well as renovations at two schools and a safety training site for youngsters.

A six-member panel is starting to cull the suggestions into a package that would be accomplished with the tax, planning to settle on it by June. Then the nine council members would decide on whether to submit the package to voters for approval this fall.

The tax would be added to the 7 cents on the dollar now charged on purchases, with groceries and prescription medicine exempt. The average annual cost would be about $130 per resident.

At 8 cents on the dollar, the sales tax would be comparable to what is paid in most adjoining counties.

Some improvements suggested – mostly paving dirt roads – have waited up to 30 years due to lack of money.

“Kicking the can further down the road is no longer an option,” Adams said. “Not doing this (the tax) will only exacerbate our problems.”

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483.

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