The conflict in Lexington County over a proposed sales tax plan for roads and other improvements is intensifying a split among Republicans who dominate local politics.
It pits GOP pragmatists who favor a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase on the Nov. 4 ballot against anti-tax ideologues.
Settling on ways to pay for coping with steady growth is renewing long-standing tensions that have largely simmered quietly for the past decade.
“The polarization has been amplified by the penny,” said Ned Tolar of West Columbia, who is in position to win election to a County Council post on an anti-tax theme.
Anti-tax forces enjoy the backing of county Republican leaders, who oppose the tax hike and donated $200 to the campaign against it.
Those steps are “a gentle please-get-back-in-line” message to the nine-member, all-GOP County Council that developed the ballot plan, county Republican chairman Bill Rentiers said.
Revenue gains from growth should be enough to pay for much of the $268.1 million in projects that the new tax would make possible, some tax foes say.
“A no vote on this proposal is not a rejection of the idea of repairing our roads or using tax revenue for these projects,” former county Republican chairman Rich Bolen said. “If these projects are important, then sacrifices will have to be made in other areas.”
Demands to adhere to Republican orthodoxy hostile to any tax increase is off-base, some council members say.
“I used to be like that,” retiring Councilman Brad Matthews of St. Andrews said of a firm commitment against higher taxes. “But going into office and seeing all that has to be done and the cost of doing it – my mind has been switched.”
Council chairman Johnny Jeffcoat said county leaders operate in “a very conservative manner, but one that maintains quality of life.”
Leaders of the campaign for the tax say the proposal is a way to make long-delayed improvements happen soon, before road congestion worsens and lack of water and sewer freezes potential development.
Revenue from growth pays for more deputies, ambulance crews, firefighters and other services but leaves virtually nothing for roads and other improvements on the scale needed, they say.
“We can’t wait on someone to wave a magic wand – there is none,” said Earl McLeod, executive director of the Home Builders Association of Greater Columbia and co-chair of the Lexington Penny for Pavement organization. “We’ve got 20 years of neglect that we’ve got to find funding to correct.”
The campaign for the tax is supported by business leaders, developers, home builders, real estate agents and environmental, literacy and recreation groups.
Tolar brands the tax plan as the brainchild of “Chamber of Commerce Republicans” who developed a flawed package.
Tax foes are making inclusion of walking paths, community centers, sports facilities and parks the chief target of their complaints that the package is laden with pork-barrel ideas to curry support at the polls. Those projects are mainly in small towns where traffic isn’t much of a problem but facilities for families are lacking.
The projects under fire total a tenth of the proposed $268.1 million package, with the rest earmarked for roads, sidewalks and utility improvements.
So far, tax foes – a loose-knit mix of ultra-conservative and Tea Party elements – are making their presence felt.
Their support contributed to the defeat of two council members at the GOP primary in June – Bill Banning of West Columbia and Frank Townsend of Batesburg-Leesville – who favored the referendum.
Anti-tax groups say their cause has received less than $5,000 in donations, forcing reliance on social media and the Internet to spread their message that largely echoes traditional suspicion of those in power.
“Our county leaders need to use the resources for which they have stewardship better,” Bolen said. “The voters will be very foolish indeed if they entrust the County Council with more of their hard-earned money when they have demonstrated that they cannot properly administer the money they have already confiscated.”
Many claims by tax foes “twist the truth,” Jeffcoat said.
Tax supporters are running a traditional campaign with ads, mailings and public appearances promoting the plan and highlighting how communities would benefit. But they are keeping the sources and contribution amounts a secret.
The tax plan isn’t simple to explain but attracts interest after it is outlined, McLeod said.
Despite the fuss over a handful of local projects, “the emphasis is on fixing roads,” he said.
Former councilman Smokey Davis says the plan is an investment guaranteed to finance at least 69 projects and up to 24 more if revenue is higher than expected.
“It’s the best tax – you know what you’re buying,” he said.
The division over the tax is generating talk that it may leave long-lasting scars within the county GOP, which is struggling to come to grips with the strains of growth that planners say will mushroom in the next 20 years.
Hostility to the plan is a sign that “the political winds are changing,” Tolar said.
Others say that’s hyperbole.
The tax plan allows some extremists the chance to “vent frustration that Lexington County is not becoming a Libertarian paradise,” long-time GOP activist Jim Wellman of Lexington said.
Accepting their message threatens to make the local Republican hierarchy “irrelevant,” he said.
Rentiers describes the split among county political leaders over the plan as a family spat unlikely to lead to divorce.
“This is a squabble,” he said, “that doesn’t prevent the family from having Thanksgiving dinner together.”