THE SUCCESS or failure of Lexington County’s proposed Penny for Pavement sales tax for roads and other projects could come down to perception versus reality: the perception by some voters that it’s just a money grab or a piling on of new taxes versus the real need to fix some serious road issues.
First the perception problem: Generally, some critics believe the Nov. 4 referendum asking for a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase is just another attempt by local government officials to get money to pay for pet projects — or other things that shouldn’t be paid for with a countywide levy. And, quite frankly, including some questionable projects such as new or renovated town halls that have nothing to do with road improvements doesn’t help allay such fears.
The perception problem is more acute in areas that could be hit with multiple tax increases, especially Cayce, where last month the City Council enacted a 2 percent sales tax on restaurant food to be used for tourism-related projects, including upkeep of the Riverwalk along the Congaree River. That means that when Cayce voters go to the polls on Nov. 4, they must decide whether they want to layer the Penny for Pavement sales tax increase and Lexington District 2’s proposed property tax increase for $225 million in new schools and renovations on top of the new restaurant tax.
Cayce is the only community that faces such a trifecta, but Lexington 2 serves West Columbia, Springdale, Pine Ridge and South Congare as well; voters in those other areas will have to determine whether to embrace the sales tax and the property tax increase for schools.
Can you blame some voters, those in Cayce in particular, if they’re pondering whether this is a case of piling on?
In Cayce, if you add the possible impact of the two referendums as well as the restaurant tax, a typical family of four would see its annual tax bill increase at least $500.
Apparently aware of the possible perception of piling on, Cayce officials agreed that if the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax for roads passes, the meal tax will be rolled back by a penny. That’s a notable good-faith gesture.
That said, Cayce shouldn’t have enacted the food tax at all. As I’ve noted in the cases of Columbia and Richland County, the hospitality tax puts too much pressure on an already-elevated sales tax and tempts cities and counties to conjure up ways to use the money, turning it into little more than a slush fund.
While Cayce and other communities in Lexington 2 face the brunt of the proposed tax increases, don’t forget that many in Lexington County also saw their water rates rise in July. I’m sure those whose bills increased haven’t forgotten.
Water and sewer rates rose for more than 40,000 homes and businesses across Lexington County. The increases that began July 1 were as little as 40 cents in some rural neighborhoods and as much as $5.50 in areas near West Columbia to the typical residential bill each month — and more for businesses. Amounts vary by community in Cayce, Gilbert, Pelion, Red Bank, Summit, West Columbia and nearby areas.
That might not sound like much money to some. And to some degree it’s a perception issue. But many people are still closely monitoring their budgets as things continue to be tight following the Great Recession. How much will their pocketbooks influence how they vote?
But here is where reality comes in: Lexington District 2 has real building needs, with supporters pointing out that many schools were built 50 or 60 years ago.
Also, Lexington is a fast-growing county. With increased population comes a real need to increase services and improve infrastructure — something Lexington County hasn’t done the best job of, particularly when it comes to road improvements.
County officials have spent years trying to find funding to improve roads, but with little success. That’s why they have turned to the penny.
While there are important projects aimed at relieving congestion and addressing traffic safety, for some people, it’s about providing roads that residents and emergency vehicles can manage. There is a backlog of 665 miles of dirt roads waiting to be paved if the sales tax is adopted. It’s estimated that without more money it would take 35 years to pave those roads.
Whereas the inclusion of extra projects might have a negative effect on how voters view the sales tax, it’s possible that all the discussion about road needs statewide and South Carolina’s inability to address those needs could favor Lexington’s Penny for Pavement effort. People are more aware of the need and of the fact that some of these things are never going to happen unless local communities do it for themselves.
But in the end, you’ve still got to wonder whether the city of Cayce, the school district and the county created a problem that could doom one or both of the tax increase proposals on the Nov. 4 ballot by presenting these tax increases around the same time. You’d think that officials would have sought to avoid the appearance of piling on.
But maybe they know their communities and are confident that voters understand the needs and are willing to help meet them. Come Election Day, we’ll all know if that’s true.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or email@example.com.