Bolton: Lexington County sales tax increase would fund a wish list of projects

Associate EditorJuly 6, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

— LEXINGTON County has considerable challenges with congestion, traffic safety, dirt roads and other road-related issues, but are voters willing to raise the sales tax to meet those needs alone?

Supporters of a capital improvements sales tax increase that will be on the ballot Nov. 4 apparently don’t think so. If they did, the list of proposed projects would have been 100 percent road upgrades, wouldn’t it?

Road improvements make up about two-thirds of the proposed projects. The remainder is a wish list that includes water and sewer projects, civic centers, parks, community centers and other non-road improvements across the county.

Quite frankly, officials should be embarrassed by some of the projects included on the list.

As my colleague Cindi Scoppe asked: Why are voters countywide being asked to approve a sales tax increase to give paper towns (Pine Ridge and Pelion, for example) — areas allowed to incorporate by law but that shouldn’t — new or improved town halls?

I’ll tell you why: It’s an attempt to get as broad a base of support as possible in hopes that the tax increase will pass. It’s a classic something-for-everyone tactic; you know, horse trading.

We’ve seen it before. While a dire need to fund the Midlands bus system was the primary reason Richland County officials pushed voters to approve a transportation sales tax in 2012, leaders pledged to spend the bulk of the money on roads, bike paths, sidewalks and other transportation-related projects in part because they didn’t think the measure would pass otherwise.

If all you’re worried about is getting the tax passed, that’s not a bad tactic. But if you’re worried about being wasteful and unnecessarily increasing the burden of the local sales tax, then it’s not so easy to stomach.

Be assured that opponents will question whether Lexington’s road needs are really what is driving the tax increase given the Christmas list of extra projects. Some voters — this is particularly true in conservative Lexington County — will see this as strictly a money grab and vote against it.

Still, the best argument for increasing the sales tax will be the need to improve the county’s roads. Lexington County Council has struggled for years to find a way to fund improvements.

State and federal money never has been enough to meet the county’s roads needs, and local officials have decided — as those in Richland County did — that they must take their destiny into their own hands.

Local elected officials should be able to determine the needs of their communities and then raise the revenue needed to meet those needs. Unfortunately, the Legislature has limited the ability of cities and counties to generate revenue — including placing a cap on increases in the property tax, the primary funding source for local governments. Local governments have few alternatives outside of sales taxes.

So, Lexington County finds itself trying to make the best out of one of the worst revenue options.

Can it convince voters to buy in?

While the county doesn’t have an urgent, emotional need such as a bus system on the brink of financial disaster, Lexington’s tax is in some ways more palatable than Richland’s.

For starters, it tax would last only eight years, as opposed to Richland County’s 22-year levy.

Also, by law, voters will know exactly what the money would be spent for; the question on the November ballot must include an outline of each project, and the county must stick to that list. While Richland County produced a list of proposed projects, there is nothing that compels it to start them in any particular order or to do what it said it would do.

Some arguments for the Lexington County tax, which would not apply to groceries or medicine, are similar to those that Richland County made: The money from the sales tax would stay inside the county, out-of-county residents would help pay for infrastructure, and the construction would add jobs and commerce that would bolster the local economy.

While it’s good that the county must stick to the project list it proposed, it’s ridiculous that it must print all of the projects on the ballot; thank our Legislature for that, too. That requirement worries Lexington County elections officials, who are predicting significant waits at polling places as a result of the lengthy outline. They predict that some people will get frustrated at the wait and that some will leave without voting.

The elections officials asked Lexington County Council to delay the referendum and give the Legislature a chance to fix the problem. But county officials know how slow the Legislature can be sometimes, particularly if lawmakers don’t all agree there’s a problem. They refused to wait, saying they didn’t want to waste months of preparation or to have to go back and develop a new package of projects. They also didn’t want to lose any momentum a pro-tax coalition had gained.

Besides, the tax could pass in spite of the long wait.

Of course, if Richland County’s experience is a barometer, this is just a trial run for Lexington County.

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

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