Voters in Georgetown County gave solid approval Tuesday to an extra penny of sales tax to help pay for port and inlet dredging, fire stations and road improvements.
In complete but unofficial returns, the measure passed 11,710 to 8,118 or 59 percent to 41 percent.
The tax is proposed to be imposed for four years and to raise $28 million. It will not apply to groceries, prescription drugs or anything else exempt from the existing 6 percent sales tax.
Two years ago, voters shot down by 55 percent to 45 percent a more ambitious sales tax proposal that also included a local share of port dredging and would have collected an estimated $5.5 million a year for eight years.
County officials said they heard the voters and this time proposed a slimmer package. Unlike two years ago, there was no organized opposition, though signs urging a vote against the sales tax popped up around the county.
County Administrator Sel Hemingway said in a statement that the council respects the decision of the voters.
“Obviously this project list was viewed more favorably than the list voters saw two years ago,’’ he said. “We certainly expect council to honor this decision and to move forward to get these projects completed in the most cost effective yet timely manner possible.”
The highest priority on the proposal is $6 million for a local share of the estimated $33.5 million to restore the port and its channel to its 27-foot depth. The amount was urged by state and federal authorities, who said funds to maintain the small state-owned port are scarce.
A plan to spend $8 million to dredge channels and basins in Murrells Inlet is second in priority, followed by $2.3 million to prepare a place to deposit the dredged materials from the inlet.
County officials said the inlet project is needed because recreational and commercial fishing and boating are important to locals and tourists.
The remainder is $3 million for fire stations, including a police-fire facility for the town of Andrews, and $8.9 million for 101 road projects.
County leaders backed the sales tax plan, as did some groups including the Coastal Carolinas Association of Realtors. The county’s information packet on the plan said the port is the key to the county’s economic future.
Each increase of 500,000 tons of cargo a year creates 42 jobs and adds $1.3 million to the economy, economic studies estimated.
While there is no guarantee an improved port would attract more business, county officials said there will be little increase in business if the port is not improved. Mittal Steel has said it would like to use the port again if the harbor and channel are deepened.
It was the fifth time since 1990 that a sales tax referendum was placed on the ballot. Two were for property tax relief and two were for projects such as parks, libraries and dredging. The other four were soundly voted down, and Georgetown was one of only eight counties in the state without an extra sales tax.