“Penny for Pavement” signs are stuck in all the grassy corners of the intersection outside Tha Store just south of Gilbert. But the flashing caution light also could be a warning to those who want to raise Lexington County’s sales tax.
Ask the customers inside the small convenience store and grill about the proposed increase from 7 to 8 percent, and all you get are grimaces and hesitation.
The three people sitting at the counter on a Wednesday less than a month before the election didn’t know anything about the Penny for Pavement campaign, but any talk of raising taxes was quickly met with indignation. One man who wouldn’t give his name called it “bull” and said people are already taxed for roadwork.
This kind of reaction doesn’t surprise Summit Mayor Rosalyn Reeder.
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Lexington County voters already pay a lot of taxes, she said, and “more taxes kind of turn people off.”
Reeder and some other community leaders are reluctant to take a stand, even if the increase would benefit their communities. “I represent all of them, and some want it, and some don’t,” she said.
Gilbert Mayor Randy Clamp said he isn’t for or against the increase, but since people are tired of increasing taxes, voters should decide.
Back at Tha Store, another man heading out who also wouldn’t give his name said he couldn’t care less because Lexington County was “just a bunch of crooks.”
Uninformed voters are commonplace in local politics, said Columbia-based consultant Luke Byars, former campaign manager for onetime U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint. In a resolutely conservative county like Lexington, “chances of a ballot question, on average, go down in defeat,” he said.
That likelihood goes up, he said, when you have long ballots, like this year’s, which for some parts of Lexington County will be 15 pages long as each project to be funded by the tax increase is listed.
“If you want to confuse voters, you include a really long referendum,” he said.
Gilbert contractor and property manager Megan Hutto, who is helping the pro-increase forces, is blunt: “Nobody pays attention, nobody cares, and this is more than just this particular ballot question,” said Hutto, whose family has deep ties to Lexington County and who ran unsuccessfully for County Council two years ago. “An uneducated vote is worse than no vote at all.”
Talk to Frances Price, chaiwoman of Gilbert’s planning and zoning commission, and the frustration is palpable.
“We have public meetings, and no one shows up, then they fuss about what we do,” said Price, co-owner of Price’s Country Store on Gilbert’s north side.
At his Augusta Road auto body shop, Jimmy Black said he didn’t know about the tax increase vote until Hutto approached him. If people don’t know about the tax, they’ll vote “no,” and the proposal won’t go through, he said.
“I just don’t think the general public has enough knowledge,” he said.
“The first thing they hear is ‘tax,’ and they don’t want anything to do with it.”
Black said he wssn’t sure he would want the increase were he not a businessman who would benefit from it.
Brenda Rawl, who works at her husband’s Clayton Rawl Farms near Lexington High School between Gilbert and Lexington, said too many projects that would be funded by the tax increase don’t relate to road improvement.
“I don’t care about walking trails on the other side of Lexington. Roads are the only thing we need taxes for,” she said.
Tens of millions of dollars are slated for water system improvements throughout the county too, including to the Gilbert-Summit system. But Rawl said campaigning on the Penny for Pavement theme is misleading if it isn’t just for roads.
Others echo that sentiment, noting the seeming shift in what originally was widely publicized as Penny for Progress. Even Reeder, Summit's mayor, has picked up on that.
“It’s not Penny for Progress? They’ve kind of changed the name, haven’t they?” Reeder asked.
But the Penny for Progress commission, which assembled the list of 92 projects to be on the ballot, is separate from the Penny for Pavement campaign organization.
The Penny for Pavement Coalition includes at least 14 organizations, such as most of the county’s chambers of commerce, homebuilders and Realtors groups from the Midlands, the county's recreation and aging commission, the Congaree Riverkeeper, Keep the Midlands Beautiful and Friends of the Lexington Main Library, according to an email sent to supporters. The address on the email, which is available online, is the same as the Cayce-West Columbia Chamber of Commerce.
Gilbert council member Monti Caughman sums it up this way: “The people who make the effort to vote are the people that want to be informed.
“Whether for or against, I hope people make an informed decision.”