WHEN RICHLAND County voters rejected the initial attempt to enact a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase in 2010 to pay for bus operations, road improvements and other projects, supporters were disappointed yet optimistic.
That’s because the tax failed by the slimmest of margins — losing by just more than 2,000 votes out of more than 100,000 cast. The elected, business and community leaders who led the charge were convinced they could regroup and get the measure passed with a greater effort to educate voters and a little more elbow grease. They were right: In 2012, voters approved the tax convincingly.
If a similar group in Lexington County that backed a penny-on-the-dollar capital improvement tax for roads and other projects had any aspirations of taking the same route, those hopes were dashed last week, when voters bludgeoned the sales tax at the polls. The plan, which called for an eight-year tax to raise $268.1 million to pay for roads and other projects, was rejected by more than 2-to-1. It was ugly: The levy won in only one of the county’s 96 precincts, as the measure to raise the sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent went down in flames, 52,696 to 22,991.
Obviously, proponents aren’t nearly as hopeful as their Richland counterparts were. While it would be reading too much into those numbers to suggest such a tax will never pass in Lexington, I can’t imagine the levy being back on the ballot, let alone approved, any time soon.
Still, there are some people — including some opponents — who suggest that significantly altering the failed sales tax plan could lead to its passage. Newly elected Lexington County Councilman Ned Tolar, who opposed the defeated plan, has said he wants to develop a scaled-back version that would address roads and possibly a few water, sewer and drainage projects. He said the reworked plan might seek only a half-cent increase and that proposed projects likely would be different from those voters rejected.
Many people understandably complained that the plan included walking paths, sports fields, civic centers and parks; they saw those as unnecessary add-ons that shouldn’t be paid for by a countywide tax.
Interestingly, those extraneous projects were included in order to gain support across the county. But the tax lost overwhelmingly in areas such as Gaston, Pelion, Pine Ridge and Swansea, which stood to gain some of those improvements.
The resounding defeat of the tax suggests that the problem isn’t just about the extra projects or even the way the plan was set up: No, this was an angry vote. Many people simply don’t want to be taxed more.
And that’s not an easy hurdle to cross. It’s going to take more than a tweak here or a tweak there or a slick get-out-the-vote campaign to pass this tax in Lexington any time soon. Chances are it is going to take some serious changes to the plan along the lines of what Mr. Tolar suggests. And even then, I’m not convinced that trying to go back at it in two years is going to work, given the animosity that met it at the polls this year.
Many who oppose the tax believe there is a need for new roads, but they’re short on ideas for alternative funding. Some seem to think that Lexington County’s road woes could be aided via a plan Gov. Nikki Haley has pledged to produce early next year to address the state’s crumbling road system. The one problem with that is that other counties are likely counting on the same thing, even though absent some new revenue stream it’s highly unlikely that any plan will emerge that sufficiently addresses state road needs, let alone those of local governments.
While it’s debatable as to how the plan should be fashioned and what projects should be included, the sales tax that voters nixed is Lexington County’s only hope. There is no other help on the way. State lawmakers have willfully and long refused to give local governments alternatives to raising revenue in order to meet their communities’ needs.
Last week’s vote essentially puts any broad, meaningful road improvements on hold indefinitely in Lexington County. But some county leaders say it’s inevitable that another attempt will be made to get the tax approved in a few years.
Given the needs, how long can Lexington afford to wait — four or six or even eight years? And how bad do traffic and road problems have to get?
Expect congestion and safety issues to exacerbate. Expect residents, emergency workers and school buses to continue struggling to make their way up and down many of the county’s nearly 700 miles of dirt roads, some of which have been waiting more than a generation to be paved.
Proponents of the tax note that most neighboring counties — Saluda is the exception — have adopted a capital improvement or transportation sales tax. If those counties appreciably improve their transportation network and Lexington doesn’t, Lexington will fall behind. Lexington County, in effect, could become the weak link in the Midlands transportation network, in terms of serving its own citizens, businesses and visitors as well as when it comes to luring new industry and supporting expansions.
Could new industry become hesitant about considering Lexington County? Could existing businesses choose to move to other counties rather than expand in Lexington to avoid transportation problems?
Ultimately, the future of the capital improvement tax in Lexington County might rest on how effective nearby counties are in upgrading their communities through similar levies.
While Lexington residents might take note of what happens in Newberry County or even Aiken or Orangeburg, there’s no doubt that they will have an eye on what is about to transpire in Richland County.
While Richland County has been delayed in revving up its projects, it’s only a matter of time before it begins making what is expected to be roughly $600 million in improvements throughout the county, from new roads to bike paths to sidewalks, you name it. As Richland County transforms its transportation network, its Lexington County neighbors will have an ever-present reminder of what could happen within their borders.
Will Lexington County voters be willing to stand by as their county falls behind? We’ll see.
Reach Warren Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org.