Lexington County Council is mulling a ballot referendum to let voters decide whether to approve a one-cent sales tax increase that members hope will be targeted for infrastructure. The council’s wish list includes a lot of road improvements, though 26 public entities have drawn up infrastructure and other priorities, should the tax pass. But some Lexington County residents are working to stop the tax—dubbed Penny for Progress—before the election in November.
The county is paying the Columbia-based consulting firm, Alliance Consulting Engineers $450,000 in one-time money the state allocated to the county for doing the legwork on the projects being submitted—139 submissions and with them, approximately 400 individual projects, to date. Those submissions represent approximately $670 million worth of projects.
Alliance’s agreement with the county dictates the firm can’t handle more than 10 percent of the projects resulting from the tax revenue, according to Ryan Slattery, the firm’s project manager on the penny tax. Slattery expects the final ballot list will be completed by May 12.
But one taxpayer watchdog group wants to stop the council from ever placing the issue on the ballot. “They need to better manage the tax money they already collect instead of trying to raise more money,” says Talbert Black, a South Carolina political activist who heads the Lexington County Citizens Watch.
The group is canvassing and distributing palm cards to raise awareness of the issue and of what Black calls the “potential misuse of the tax money.” And an online petition encourages people to let their council member know they want to stop the tax.
County Council Chairman Johnny Jeffcoat says if the people don’t vote for it, that’s okay. “We’re not trying to push anything on anybody,” he says.
Like Black, Mike Green, of West Columbia, opposes the tax. He gave the only public comment at a Penny for Progress Commission meeting on Wednesday. He spoke in opposition to a $16.7 million water park targeted for the Town of Springdale. “It is not the purpose of government to build water parks,” said Green. He opposes the tax overall, but said if it does pass, it should be used on roads and infrastructure only.
Slattery says the water park is near the bottom of the Commission’s priority list—the body is responsible for deciding which projects the county will fund in case the tax passes.
The tax is estimated to bring in $290 million over the course of the first eight years, after which voters will have to decide whether to re-approve it. The Commission is composing a list of projects costing approximately $260 million, with an additional $90 million contingent projects list in case the tax brings in additional revenue or some projects come in under budget.
Commission Chairman Mike Crapps, of Lexington, says most of the requests are for roads, sewer, wastewater and other infrastructure. He will base his votes on community
impact. “I think the process that we’ve gone through is a good process,” he says, “a very democratic process.”
Regardless of public opinion on the tax, the demand for road improvements is there. Jeffcoat says the county gets approximately 100 calls per day complaining about the roads. That number jumps to 300 when the area experiences bad weather. The county owns approximately 650 miles of dirt roads and paves only two to three miles per year, says Jeffcoat.
Critics of the tax cite the approximately $127 million in general and other funds in the county’s reserves last year. But county administrator, Joe Mergo says that figure doesn’t paint the whole picture. “Obviously our fund balance has a huge bearing on our bond rating.”
Of the approximately $75 million in the general fund, Mergo estimates the county needs to keep $10 million to $15 million on-hand in case of emergencies to prevent getting a negative bond rating. Approximately $2 million is set aside for inventory such as office supplies and supplies needed for maintaining the county fleet, and the county must keep approximately $30 million on-hand for other appropriations, says Mergo. The remainder—approximately $43 million—in the county’s general fund affects the bond rating.
A solid rating from agencies like Moody’s is essential to borrowing at lower interest rates. And Mergo says a good rating is important when the county takes out loans to lay roads and prepare shovel-ready sites for economic development parks. Mergo thinks the county’s fund balance is about what it should be based on appropriations. As for the approximately $52 million in other funds, most of that money is tied to specific revenue funds, state mandates and grants. It pays for the library system, the solicitor’s office, school resource officers and other needs. And since much of the money is granted, expenditures can’t be changed.
Mergo’s take on whether the county has the money to improve the roads? “We just don’t.” He says the county has built those reserves up over the past 20 years. It would take 135 years at current funding levels to address road improvements, he says.
Jeffcoat agrees. “If we had the money, we wouldn’t be asking people.”
But Black has heard those arguments before. “They never seem to have enough money.”