Lexington County leaders are struggling to come up with a new approach for road improvements after the unexpectedly strong rejection of a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax plan at the polls Tuesday.
“If it wasn’t this, I don’t know what,” County Council chairman Johnny Jeffcoat said Wednesday. “I don’t know any answer.”
The plan for $268.1 million in projects that county leaders spent two years developing lost by slightly more than 2-to-1, winning approval in only one precinct in West Columbia out of 96 countywide.
Overall, the tax lost 52,696-22,991, according to unofficial results.
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It was walloped in neighborhoods in Red Bank and rural areas in the west and southern edges of the 720-square mile county that include a mix of suburbs, small towns and farms.
“We were a little taken aback” by the sizable rebuff, said Tiffany Boyce Heitzman, co-chairwoman of the unsuccessful Lexington Penny for Pavement campaign.
The plan’s design for wider appeal through inclusion of walking paths, civic centers, sports fields and parks for small towns without traffic problems flopped. It lost overwhelmingly in Gaston, Pelion, Pine Ridge and Swansea, all of which would have gained those amenities.
“We didn’t need those pork projects just to entice people to vote for it,” former county election commission chairman Gene Wilbur said. “People realize we need roads.”
But the proposal’s appeal as a start on long-wanted plans to reduce traffic congestion and make roads safer also failed in steadily growing areas such as Lexington and adjoining neighborhoods
The message to find a different way to improve roads is “pretty loud and clear,” Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall said. But what route will be taken – and choosing the projects possible – is something “we need to figure out.”
For now, the idea of trying again with a new tax plan narrowly focused on roads and perhaps a few water, sewage and drainage projects is too radioactive politically for county leaders even though tax foes are offering to help develop and promote such a package.
“I don’t want to touch it for a while,” said Councilman Bobby Keisler, who swallowed misgivings about the tax increase to 8 cents from 7 cents on the dollar to support the referendum.
Another attempt to win approval of the tax in a few years appears inevitable, some county leaders predict.
“The plan had a heart attack, but it isn’t dead,” retiring Councilman Brad Matthews said. “It’ll be back.”
But other county leaders suggest the tax is off-limits indefinitely.
“It seems fairly clear nobody is interested in doing it at this point,” Councilman Jim Kinard said.
Bringing it back in a few years could run into one of the same problems encountered Tuesday – competition with another plan for school improvements, this time with Lexington 1, home to nearly half of the county’s 53,000 students. The tax increase shared the ballot with a proposal for a property tax hike for $225 million in school upgrades for Lexington 2 – a plan that won 2-1, while the tax lost.
Interviews with voters there showed sentiment favoring classroom improvements over roads, said Scott Adams, political consultant for the school campaign.
Some residents also want to see whether the county would benefit much from Gov. Nikki Haley’s commitment to seek road improvements statewide, he said.
Her promise made many voters decide “why go out front” with a local tax, he said.
Both attitudes set the stage for the tax plan to receive “an old-fashioned drubbing,” Adams said.
Turnout at the polls was 77,874, or about 49 percent of the county’s roughly 160,000 voters.
Selling any tax increase is always a challenge, but the effort became harder as anti-tax foes raised a series of objections to what they saw as flaws.
One main complaint was the possibility of a property tax increase to pay off loans that could have been used to start projects early if sales tax revenue was inadequate.
County leaders call that claim off-base, saying it was a requirement by lenders that would never come into play. “A lot of scare tactics were used,” Kinard said.
In the end, supporters say, the failure of the tax seems less about the doubts raised and more about the plan simply lacking sufficient sizzle as a solution.
“It was a lot easier to say no instead of yes,” Heitzman said.