WHILE LEXINGTON County’s proposed Penny for Pavement tax plan has its shortcomings, there’s a grim reality that voters need to understand as they consider whether to approve the measure aimed at addressing chronic congestion, traffic problems and road safety.
No other help is on the way.
Lexington officials have been wrestling with road problems for decades, even before the population explosion that has put extreme pressure not just on roads, but on fire, police and other services.
In the late 1990s, council members seriously considered a sales tax referendum to address the county’s 700 miles of dirt roads. At the time, some citizens had been waiting 20 years to have their roads paved; more than 20 years later, many of those roads remain unpaved. But complaints about raising the sales tax led the council to abandon the idea.
That left Lexington County dependent on the limited money it received from the state gas tax to pave roads little by little. County officials pave about four miles each year. At that pace, it would take 165 years to pave the remaining 665 miles of dirt roads.
Lexington is one of the fastest-growing counties in the state, and no let up is in sight: Its 2010 population of 262,000 is projected to reach 318,000 in 2020 and 388,000 in 2030. That would be a 48 percent growth over a 20-year span.
Lexington officials say the sales tax is the only way to pay for much-needed roads, water, sewer, drainage, recreation, libraries and other facilities to meet today’s needs, let alone what lies ahead. The tax would last eight years — far less than Richland County’s 22-year transportation sales tax — but could be renewed by voters.
But there are understandable concerns. Who wants to pay more taxes — particularly sales taxes? The state and local governments already depend too heavily on the volatile revenue stream. Adding another penny on the dollar would raise the tax to 8 percent. It’s projected that county residents would pay an average of $158 per household per year on the new sales tax. Groceries and prescription medicine would be exempt from the levy.
In addition to those concerns, the tax would pay for town halls, parks and other things that shouldn’t be paid for with a countywide levy. Two-thirds of the $268.1 million in improvements would go toward roads.
I have some of the same concerns about the tax and understand how some reasonable people oppose it. But while I have some reservations, I think Lexington County voters should approve the tax.
I wish officials had dedicated the tax completely to road needs and omitted the extra projects, something they must consider in the future if the measure isn’t approved Tuesday. I will say that practically every county that has approved a capital improvement or transportation sales tax resorted to the same tactic of making sure there’s something in it for everyone, in an effort to increase voter support. In Richland County, the purpose of the transportation sales tax was to fund the public bus system; yet, two thirds of the money will go toward improving roads and building sidewalks, bike paths and other projects.
Weighing Lexington County’s transportation needs, which are destined to become more acute, it makes sense to pass a short-term, temporary tax that can only be renewed by voters. Even those who oppose the tax say road improvements are needed, but they don’t present another option.
And here’s a critical point to consider: This only begins to address the challenge of meeting increased infrastructure and service demands resulting from the fast growth. Just as county officials have searched for money to pave dirt roads and meet other transportation needs, they’re pondering what to do to meet increasing service demands.
Back in 2005, the council considered implementing impact fees to help expand library services and fire protection and take some pressure off property taxpayers. But the 1999 law the Legislature passed to allow impact fees is so restrictive that few local governments have found a way to make it work.
Meanwhile infrastructure and service demands continue to mount, and Lexington County and other local governments have practically nowhere to turn for help.
The county’s main funding source is the property tax, but there’s no appetite for an increase. Even if there was, the county has little capacity because the Legislature has capped its ability to raise property taxes. Not only that, but lawmakers have cut supposedly guaranteed funding to cities and counties to pay for state mandates. And road funding from the gas tax has dwindled over the years.
So, it’s critical for cities and counties to press legislators to provide more funding options. But unfortunately, it’s abundantly clear lawmakers don’t intend to oblige local governments anytime soon, if ever. Knowing that no other help is on the way, it’s hard to have a problem with Lexington County citizens paving their own way with this temporary tax.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or firstname.lastname@example.org