The Nov. 7 election for Chapin mayor could help determine whether the town – the hub of a 40-square-mile area on the north side of Lake Murray – creates a new sales tax on meals in town restaurants and other eateries.
Incumbent Skip Wilson faces two challengers who are making the contest an unofficial referendum on the tax he proposed last year on restaurant dining, takeout meals and snacks.
Their anti-tax push comes on top of Wilson’s lingering conflict with some of the four Town Council members.
The outcome of the race extends well beyond the Lexington County community of 1,700 residents. Many of the surrounding 60,000 residents shop and dine in Chapin. Hundreds in the area are coping with the social and economic impact of the shutdown of the nearby V.C. Summer nuclear construction project in Fairfield County.
Wilson is willing to take another look at adding two pennies on the dollar on dining tabs, an idea other town leaders rejected in 2016. The tax would provide money “to re-invest in our town” for improvements such as sidewalks, roads and a long-wanted park, he said.
The tax is estimated to generate $400,000 a year from 40 restaurants, supermarket delicatessens and snack bars at convenience stores.
But the tax isn’t appetizing for Wilson challengers Shayla Flores and David Knight.
Flores described the tax as “a lazy man’s way out,” saying the emphasis should be on seeking federal and state aid for the projects.
Some restaurant owners are concerned the tax would prompt diners to go elsewhere.
“I worry about lost business,” said Jerry Caldwell, operator of The Coffee Shelf. “And they ought to have a more detailed plan on how it would be used.”
Knight, town attorney for 27 years through 2014, shares that sentiment. “I look at it as likely to chase people away,” he said.
Preston Baines, one of three candidates for two at-large council posts, also is campaigning against the tax. If he wins, he would join incumbents Kay Hollis and Mike Clonts in opposition and make the tax unlikely.
The other council candidates, Joe Dever and Al Koon, have not taken a position on the tax, but Wilson is supporting them. Incumbents Robbie Frick and Gregg White, both of whom opposed it, are not seeking re-election.
The meal tax is uniform in adjoining Richland County, but it’s in place in only three of 14 communities in Lexington County – Cayce, Lexington and West Columbia. It has been discussed in Batesburg-Leesville, Irmo and Springdale.
Will conflict end?
Flores and Knight both present themselves as the antidote to friction among Wilson and other town leaders.
Wilson contends some council members want to block changes he says were authorized by voters when he took charge in 2014 as the community’s first new mayor in 32 years. He defeated incumbent Stan Shealy, who is Knight’s campaign manager.
Foes ignore his repeated offers to try to settle differences. So Wilson blames opposing council members as “the ones that caused the disengagement of the relationship.”
An uproar came when Wilson fired longtime town clerk Adrienne Thompson. He alleged a series of irregularities that led to her being fined $750 for an ethics violation related to her son doing odd jobs at Chapin Town Hall. But his dismissal of Thompson led to a legal settlement that paid her $150,000.
Wilson added staff mainly to handle planning, utilities and finance, calling those steps necessary to modernize service and prepare for residential and commercial growth.
While agreeing some changes are necessary, most council members say Wilson is intolerant of questions and makes decisions without their permission. But he weathered a referendum forced by critics that sought to restrict his powers.
Wilson won legal challenges to some moves. But he is in danger of losing control after the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled Oct. 19 that council members have the final say on what’s considered at meetings called by a majority of the five members.
The ruling opens the door for council members to undo changes Wilson imposed.
Knight promises “to restore harmony” by letting council members bring up proposals without his consent. Flores insists Wilson has overstepped his bounds, pledging better cooperation among town leaders.
But both challengers stop short of saying they will reverse everything Wilson has done. Each decision will be reviewed by all town leaders to see if it remains, they said.
Style in play
Despite the headaches, Wilson says there’s unfinished work that will position Chapin to handle development coming as well as recruit jobs that cushion the town from economic shock.
“We’re on the cusp of really kicking that off,” he said. “Chapin is at the start of a transitional stage.”
He envisions being less hands-on with town operations, focusing on getting ready for growth.
Flores’ campaign is attracting attention for another reason. At 20, the College of Charleston student would be the youngest mayor in the state.
Her year as student president at Chapin High School prior to graduation in 2015 sparked her interest in becoming mayor. “In a small town, that (school) role makes you a de facto public official,” she said.
She lags significantly in fundraising, taking in $1,336 largely from herself and relatives, according to a report to the State Ethics Commission.
She’s focusing on low-cost methods such as internet ads and going door-to-door to promote herself.
Wilson, owner of a financial advice and insurance firm, mostly is self-financing his re-election effort. He reported supplying $11,370 of the $14,972 raised.
Knight reported raising $3,035, including $100 each from Clonts, former Councilwoman Bibi Atkins and Andy Syrett, the lawyer who pressed the legal challenge that Wilson lost. In addition, Knight received $200 from Hollis.
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483
Other area elections
Several races in other Lexington County communities will be settled Nov. 7. Incumbents are noted with an asterisk. All contests are nonpartisan, with the top vote-getter winning.
Mayor: Lancer Shull and Charles Simpkins
District 2: Olin Gambrell III, Tom Mims and Tripp Williamson
District 3: Steve Cain* and Gail Gibson
District 5: Bob Penick* and Shirley Etheredge Mitchell
District 6: Tillman Gives and Jim Mitchell
District 7: Nick Hallman and Jason Prouse
District 8: Magen Hallman
Town Council (2 at-large): Kelly Busch, Brent Chitwood, Kathy Condom*, Ed Wadelington, Barry Walker* and Robert Wessinger
Advisory question: Should Town Council allow hens to be kept in backyards of homes?
Town Council (2 at-large): Floyd Dinkins*, Rick Dinkins and Scott Simms
Town Council (3 at-large): Christie Cole, Kevin Reeley*, Juston Ricard*, and Jacob Wilkerson*
Mayor: Michael Loungo, Jerald Sanders and Ray Spires*
District 1: Pete Fisher, Mike Green* and Virginia McGrady
District 5: Boyd Jones*, Marland Mitchell and Mickey Pringle
District 7: Leslie Efron-Platt, Erin Porter and Richard Walker
These races will not appear on the Nov. 7 ballot. Candidates are elected automatically because no one is opposing them. Incumbents are noted with an asterisk.
Town Council District 1: Linda DeLoach
Mayor: Frank Shumpert
Town Council (2 at-large): Starr Corley* and Larry Sossamon
Mayor: David Busby*
Mayor: Michael Bishop*
Town Council (2 at-large): Henry Hartley* and David Reese*
District 1: Linda Davis*
District 2: Woodrow Davis*
District 3: Casey Hallman*