It’s not the first time Bill Banning has faced a runoff election for Lexington County Council. He’s been a councilman for 16 years. But the former council Chairman, who represents West Columbia, will face Ned Tolar on June 24.
Banning won 38 percent of the vote, and Tolar won nearly 32 percent, edging out Billy Oswald. All three ran as Republicans.
But Banning seemed unfazed by the challenge Tuesday after he voted along-side all eight fellow council members in favor of a ballot referendum to let voters decide whether to increase the county sales tax by a penny. “Hey, now I’ve got a ten-day campaign,” was all he said he thought when he found he would face a runoff.
He said he heard from many supporters following the election, so it was difficult to say how big a role the sales tax issue played in his facing a runoff. And for Banning, the decision was as simple as letting voters decide whether to self-impose a tax. “I just want to give people the option.”
But some activists want to keep that option off the ballot altogether. Council opened the meeting up for public comment after they voted. The body will take up the issue one more time before the general election in November. Chairman Johnny Jeffcoat, who represents part of Columbia, warned commenters they would be asked to sit down if they publicly attacked councilmen.
One group circulated online and paper petitions to stop the tax, calling it Banning’s tax increase. Talbert Black, who heads the Lexington County Citizens Watch, came to the lectern armed with a stack of petitions several inches thick and with details of Banning’s campaign contributions.
“You cannot talk about Mr. Banning and his contributions,” said Jeffcoat. Black filled his allotted time to speak—more than two minutes—debating Jeffcoat on the potential relevance of campaign money to the tax. “It had absolutely nothing to do with the penny sales tax,” said Jeffcoat after the meeting.
Black disagreed. He didn’t know whether council members’ campaign contributions were necessarily conflicts of interest, but wanted to point out potential for abuse, he said after the meeting.
On the list of points Black never got to cover were campaign contributions by Deepal Eliatamby of $1,000 each to two of Banning’s campaigns. Eliatamby—who heads Alliance Consulting Engineers, the company that won the $450,000 contract to oversee the Penny for Progress—has also contributed to campaigns by Jeffcoat and Councilwoman Debbie Summers, of West Columbia. He did not respond to a message left on his cell phone Wednesday before publication.
Jeffcoat also rejected ownership of the tax. “This council cannot impose a sales tax,” he said.
Black saw it differently. “It’s very disingenuous to sit up there and say they’re not for this tax,” he said after the meeting.
Jeffcoat said prior to the public comment portion that the county didn’t have the funds to address hundreds of calls per day complaining about the condition of the roads. He cited repeated funding cuts by the state. “We can’t pull the rabbit out of the hat anymore.”
Dubbed the Penny for Progress by supporters, the tax would bring in an estimated $290 million over eight years—money many council members hope to use for road improvements.
According to the county’s website, Lexington is responsible for approximately 700 miles of dirt roads and 500 miles of paved roads.
The Penny for Progress project database sets aside approximately $6 million for asphalt resurfacing on 22 miles of paved roads and $70 million for paving 100 dirt roads.
Other town road projects pepper the list, which also includes wastewater improvements, increased emergency services and some recreational projects like a $9.9 million improvement slated for Riverbanks Zoo and Garden.
Four people spoke in favor of the tax, and four spoke against it. One Lexington man, Bill Rentiers decided not to bother addressing members after the council voted. “After this meeting tonight, I’ve got to write Ned Tolar a check,” he said.
Former County Councilman, Smokey Davis spoke in favor of the tax. He praised how the plan required detailing what the tax is for and how long it will last. “It’s the best tax I’ve ever seen,” he said.