Lexington County’s 12 legislators may decide next year to renew a penny sales tax for schools without letting the county’s 183,000 voters decide for themselves.
Lawmakers are concerned the tax may be a tough sell — even though it reduces property taxes.
County residents have paid the 1 percent sales tax for education for 12 years. The money helps the county’s five school districts pay off the money they borrowed to build new schools, improve existing buildings, or make other improvements.
But the sales tax may be a friend to homeowners. Without it, their property taxes would surely rise. That’s because the school districts still have to pay off the debt.
In other counties, the debt is paid off mainly through property taxes. In Lexington, the burden is split between property taxes and the sales tax.
One county official estimates that the owner of a $100,000 home saves up to $448 a year in property taxes because of the sales tax.
The tax is set to expire after 2018. Some county lawmakers are developing a plan that would make renewal of the tax their decision alone.
“Even though it’s an extension of what is already there and provides tax relief, there’s a feeling that people will be more skeptical because of what’s happened in Richland County,” Rep. Chip Huggins, R-Irmo, said.
In 2012, Richland County voters narrowly approved a 1 percent sales tax for roads. But resentment persists among some Richland County residents about the tax and the road program.
Lexington County leaders believe the Richland County controversy helped defeat their plans to create a 1 percent sales tax to pay for road improvements. Voters rejected the plan in 2014.
Supporters tout the Lexington County penny sales tax for schools as a major source of aid for classroom improvements. Its retention is “huge” for schools and taxpayers alike, said Linda Lavender, superintendent of Lexington 4 in the Gaston-Swansea areas.
One concern for sales tax supporters is the number of new residents in Lexington County. When the tax was initially approved in a 2004 referendum, the county had 230,000 residents. Today, the population has grown to 290,000.
The newcomers may not be aware that the sales tax is a trade off for reducing property taxes, supporters say.
Depending on location, the owner of a home valued at $100,000 will save $142 to $448 in property taxes this year, according to estimates by County Auditor Chris Harmon. The deduction is noted on the property tax bills.
The amount of the reduction, which fluctuates from one school district to the next, is determined based on enrollment and population.
If the sales tax is not extended, property tax bills would start increasing in 2019.
The tax, which has generated $415 million for schools since its inception, now brings in $44.1 million a year, Harmon said.
County lawmakers renewed the tax in 2011. But under current law, the county must hold a referendum in order to extend the tax. County legislators are looking to change the law so they can decide on the extension.
“It’s not an unpopular tax and probably would pass again,” said R.J. Shealy, a Lexington County political consultant for many anti-tax groups. “A decision to forgo a vote will give some people heartburn.”
But Shealy said it’s unlikely voters would reject the sales tax because of the property tax relief and parents’ support for keeping schools up-to-date.
A push for renewal at the polls “would start with some advantages because of those features,” he said.
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483
Here is what the penny sales tax for schools saves the owner of a $100,000 home saves in property taxes:
Lexington 1 (Town of Lexington, Gilbert, Pelion, Red Bank): $218
Lexington 2 (Cayce-West Columbia): $225
Lexington 3 (Batesburg-Leesville): $260
Lexington 4 (Gaston/Swansea): $448
Lexington-Richland 5 (Chapin/Irmo): $142
Source: Lexington County auditor’s office
By the numbers
Here is what Lexington County schools have received from the penny tax since 2005:
Lexington 1: $199.1 million
Lexington 2: $92.2 million
Lexington 3: $18.5 million
Lexington 4: $28.8 million
Lexington-Richland 5: $76.million
Source: Lexington County auditor’s office