Momentum for a second try for a penny sales tax increase for roads this fall is fading in Lexington County.
Pressure is building on County Council to delay the referendum until 2018 at the earliest, as supporters suggest waiting is a better strategy to win over voters.
County leaders are listening to the suggestion.
“More time seems to be more suitable for a second approach,” Councilman Jim Kinard of Swansea said. “If we don’t get it (this year), it will push the idea off for a long time.”
Much of the call for delay stems from concern about the ripple effect of alleged management problems surrounding the handling of a similar tax in neighboring Richland County, which passed in 2012.
A tax mainly for roads but also including drainage, parks, trails, sports fields, civic centers, libraries and other projects was rejected 2-1 by Lexington County voters in 2014.
“We made about every mistake that you can make,” Councilman Johnny Jeffcoat of Irmo said of that vote. “If the penny had been for road projects only then, it would have had lots more support.”
County leaders are reshaping the plan, promising it will be devoted solely for roads when presented again. Their initial focus was on another referendum Nov. 8.
The new tax is the only way to assure long-wanted road projects that improve safety and reduce bottlenecks can happen soon, supporters say.
But concern is increasing among tax proponents that it’s too soon to try again – despite the congestion many commuters increasingly encounter.
It’s never easy to sell a new tax, but the job would be made more difficult by backlash from the black eye that Richland County received, they warn.
“It would happen big-time,” said Randy Halfacre, a former Lexington mayor and retired president of the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce. “It’s too early to go again – you need a healing process.”
Anti-tax forces simply say that the “corruption” that has happened in Richland County likely would be repeated.
No one in Richland County has been charged with criminal misuse of penny tax money. But state revenue officials are questioning payments to some firms for publicity and the selection of the tax’s management team.
Members of the Lexington County Citizens Watch are posting several news stories spotlighting questions raised in Richland County on their social media sites.
“Do we want this for our county?” the group’s says. “The more we know, the worse it gets.”
Some council candidates are picking up the mantra.
“I cannot support the penny tax knowing what we know happened in Richland County," said Dino Teppara, who is running for a council post in the Irmo-Chapin area.
Lexington County officials promise revenue from the tax will be spent as it comes in instead of the more expensive step of borrowing for projects in advance as Richland County is. And no more money will be spent on engineering services to analyze projects proposed for the ballot package.
Still, foes say those steps aren’t enough to mute the skepticism.
“It’s dead in the water,” said R.J. Shealy, a political consultant to anti-tax groups. “Richland County’s problems have crippled whatever chance it had.”
Meanwhile, the push for a new roads plan for the ballot has slowed significantly.
“There’s been no movement,” Lexington town Mayor Steve MacDougall said. “They’re behind in getting started, so it would hurt the chances if they go forward.”
Anti-tax forces are relieved at the prospects of a delay even though they are confident of defeating the tax plan again.
Higher turnout common in presidential election years such as this fall “generally bodes well for election issues, giving them a little boost,” Shealy said.
Meanwhile, an advisory panel named to shape the package of projects for the ballot has been idle since its appointment four months ago.
“There’s no point in going forward now,” said Sammy Hendrix of Lexington, a member of the panel who also was on it in 2014. “It’s probably wise to wait.”
County leaders call the tax the solution for traffic jams increasing as more neighborhoods and stores sprout in the growing, 758-square-mile county that’s home to an estimated 275,000 residents.
Locals know they can’t wait for federal or state money.
Lexington town leaders pushed past anti-tax advocates last fall to adopt a local tax of two cents on the dollar on dining out, take-out meals and snacks to pay for three specific improvements.
A county penny tax is expected to produce $35 million annually over eight years before it expires. It could be renewed periodically by voters.
If adopted, the county sales tax would go from 7 to 8 cents per dollar of purchase. Groceries and prescription medicine would be exempt.
In 2014, state revenue officials estimated the tax would cost the average household $158 a year. No further update is available.
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483
A tale of two pennies
2010: Voters turn down tax to improve roads and keep buses rolling.
2012: Plan for 22-year tax raising more than $1 billion for roads and buses narrowly adopted at a ballot marred by too few machines and lengthy waits that led some voters to leave without voting.
December-today: County officials are dealing with questions raised by state revenue officials about hiring publicity firms and selection of the management team to oversee use of tax.
2012: Legislature allows counties with a separate penny sales tax for schools to seek a new tax for local projects.
2014: Voters overwhelmingly reject $268.1 million package mostly for roads but also for drainage, parks, trails, sports fields, civic centers, libraries and other improvements.
2015: County leaders begin developing a tax plan solely for roads, with a ballot targeted for fall 2016.
December-today: A panel to settle on ballot projects is formed but has not started work.