‘Penny for Pavement’ Vote Isn’t about Pavement

October 21, 2014

Inside Insight

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penniesACTIVIST: NO OFFENSE, COLUMBIA, BUT WHY
SHOULD WE PAY FOR YOUR BAD DECISIONS?

On November 4th Lexington County residents will vote on a local option sales tax. If passed, voters will increase the sales tax paid in Lexington County from 7 percent to 8 percent for the next eight years. The South Carolina Department of Revenue estimates that the increased tax rate will bring in $290 million.

On the ballot is a prioritized list of 92 projects the tax will fund. The first 69 are styled “high priority” projects and are expected to be covered by the projected revenue collections. The remainder of the projects are “low priority” and will be funded if revenue collections exceed expectations. In effect, then, citizens are given the option to vote for all 92, or against all 92. There is no option to chose which projects you like or dislike.

The very last paragraph of the ballot question – which on the sample ballot provided by the state Election Commission spreads across six pages – also gives the county permission to issue general obligation bonds of up to $150,000,000. Should the bonds not be paid back with the sales tax, then they’ll be guaranteed with a mandatory ad valorem tax on all taxable property in Lexington County.

So citizens will actually be giving permission for two tax increases in Lexington County: the first, a 1 percent increase in sales tax; the second, an unlimited increase in property tax in order to meet the $150 million bond.

Proponents of the new tax, including the Greater Lexington Chamber, the Home Builders Association of Greater Columbia, and Lexington County Development Corporation, among others, call it “A Penny for Pavement.” They point to the steadily deteriorating state of roads in the county as the primary purpose for the tax. Opponents, however, point out that only 15 percent of the money allocated to high priority projects will go toward actual paving or resurfacing roads.

Proponents also contend that the money must be used only for the projects on the ballot, and only in the order of priority as listed on the ballot. Yet the ballot’s language gives the County Council the ability to rearrange project priority for a wide variety of reasons – so many reasons, they fear, that the Council will be able to rearrange project priority at will.

“in all cases,” the ballot says, “these restrictions and conditions related to the priority of the funding of the projects may be adjusted by the County Council on the basis of construction schedules or other events that may affect the schedule for any particular project and is subject at all times to acquisition of title and rights of way, design and engineering considerations, environmental issues, the receipt of all necessary permits and regulatory approvals, funding of the project from other sources (including unanticipated grants that fund a project), bids in excess of project estimates, qualification of bidders, cost overruns, the availability of sales and use tax revenues or bond proceeds, and force majeure or other unforeseen circumstances.”

The measure’s opponents are a diverse group. They include Lexington County Citizens Watch (of which I am chairman) and Citizens Against the Tax Increase, as well as private businesses like 14 Carrot Whole Foods, a local health food store.

Further analysis shows that, of the cost of all projects on the ballot, 40 percent has nothing to do with roads or infrastructure. In fact, projects such as a walking trail, a leisure center, and a baseball complex actually have a higher priority than resurfacing county-owned roads. Local citizen activist and attorney Rich Bolen calls the tax a “Bait and Switch.”

Ed Elbrecht, owner of 14 Carrot Whole Foods, has been actively using the marquee outside his store to voice his opposition to the tax. His sign asks: “Once the sales tax increases, have you ever seen it go back down?”

The Lexington County Republican Party issued a Resolution in April stating its opposition to the tax, and followed that up with a $200 donation to bolster opposition to the tax.

But opposition to the tax is bipartisan, too. A local Democrat, formerly a candidate for House District 87, points out that the County of Lexington will be subsidizing the City of Columbia’s badly mismanaged water and sewer system if this tax passes.

He highlights items 29 and 36 on the ballot, which itemize $3.16 million to improve 16-inch and 12-inch water mains and build a 500,000 gallon water tank – both for the City of Columbia to sell water to Chapin.

Columbia sells water to Chapin at a considerable profit.  The base water fee for Columbia residents is $6.00 per 100 cubic feet of water. Chapin residents pay Columbia $10.20 per 100 cubic feet of water, according to the Columbia’s customer care web site.

But that’s not the only problem. Columbia’s water infrastructure has fallen into disrepair as city managers have redirected water and sewer income to other projects. The city, according to a 2010 report in The State, has “siphoned nearly $79 million in the past 11 years from its water and sewer fund to pay for other parts of city government.”

A good portion of that money went to fund economic development projects, competing directly with Chapin and surrounding communities. The report went on to say that “while City Council was raiding the utility fund, its water and sewer system was deteriorating and, in more than a few cases, spilling contaminants into Columbia’s waterways.”

This website’s Rick Brundrett, moreover, recently reported that from fisca years 2009 to 2011, Columbia transferred well over a million dollars every year from the city’s water and sewer fund to four development corporations: the Columbia Development Corporation, Eau Claire Development Corporation, Columbia Housing Development Corporation, and the TN Development Corporation. “In addition,” that report points out, “the city during those fiscal years transferred collectively more than $1.5 million in water-sewer funds annually to the city’s Economic Development Department and Office of Business Opportunities, and for “economic development special projects.”

Our Democratic friend asks: “Should the residents of Lexington County support this behavior by giving Columbia more than $3 million just so they can sell water back to Chapin at such a profit?”

That’s essentially the question facing Lexington County voters in November.

Talbert Black Jr. is a senior software engineer who lives in Lexington. He is also the state coordinator for S.C.’s Campaign for Liberty. The present article is the second in a series of guest columns from a variety of organizations and points of view.