Flood damage to roads intensifies push for Lexington County penny tax

Flood damage left on Bagpipe Road near Batesburg-Leesville.
Flood damage left on Bagpipe Road near Batesburg-Leesville. LEXINGTON COUNTY

Road damage from recent flooding spurred Lexington County Council to agree Tuesday to move forward with a 2016 referendum on a penny sales tax increase for those repairs and other improvements.

No price tag for repairs is known, but county leaders expect the cost will rise well above a preliminary estimate of $10 million.

Dirt roads in the rural southern and western sections of the 758-square-mile county are “decimated,” ouncilman Todd Cullum of Cayce said.

Those routes total slightly more than half of the 1,200-mile network that county officials oversee.

So far, 55 roads – all but five of them unpaved – remain closed to traffic more than a week after flashfloods spawned by record rain washed out major sections and left crevices up to five feet deep, County Public Works director Wrenn Barrett said.

Ten of those roads closed are major routes for students in local schools, he said.

The nine council members have yet to vote on whether to put a referendum on the ballot but are looking at taking the first steps toward that decision.

If the referendum happens, it would be in Novembers 2016 after a package of projects the penny tax would pay for is developed. Selection of those projects would be the job of a six-member advisory panel appointed by county and municipal officials.

Council members made it clear they will veto a referendum if the package recommended by the panel isn’t devoted solely to projects benefiting traffic.

“We’ll vote it down if it’s anything other than roads,” council chairman Johnny Jeffcoat of Irmo said.

Council members in the fiscally conservative county seemed united for the need for a penny tax increase. But a split emerged on whether improvements should be earmarked only for county roads, an approach that would omit major commuter routes that are state-maintained.

Councilman Bobby Keslier of Red Bank called for the package to be designed “to take care of our roads, our stuff.”

But others said selected improvements that move traffic should be included regardless of who is responsible for upkeep.

“There may be some roads that need to get help that are not county roads,” Jeffcoat said.

It’s estimated the tax would generate $35 million annually during an eight-year span before it would expire unless renewed by voters.

If adopted, the county’s sales tax would go from 7 to 8 cents per dollar of purchase. Groceries and prescription medicine would be exempt.

Anti-tax forces already are lining up in opposition after beating a penny tax 2-1 last year that was earmarked mainly for roads but also included paths, drainage, parks and library and other improvements.

Relying on state aid from a possible fuel tax increase for roads is undependable and could have a low pay-off, some council members said.

A penny tax is “the only way to get any work done” soon, councilwoman Debbie Summers of Springdale said.

Tim Flach: 803-771-8483