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The window is closing fast for county officials to make a decision on the future of the county’s one-cent capital project sales tax.
After months of consideration by a specially formed Capital Project Sales Tax Commission, and multiple public forums held throughout the county, Lancaster County Council was set to review the commission’s report during its meeting Monday, July 14.
But instead of voting to approve the recommended list of projects from a commission it had appointed, County Council disagreed with the report – which included funding recommendations for roads, libraries and public safety radios – and kicked it back to the full commission for another review.
It all started as County Administrator Steve Willis presented the commission’s report to council for consideration.
Four members of the six-member commission voted unanimously to recommend a ballot question that would let voters decide whether to approve $37,500,000 in general obligation bonds be issued for a list of priority projects.
Those projects included road improvements, with a total cost of $16,672,000, library improvements, with a total cost of $12,828,000, and a public safety radio system, with a total cost of $8 million.
With this new information in hand, Willis told council members they had three options in regards to second reading of the sales tax ordinance. They could approve second reading, vote no, or table the ordinance and recommit the report back to the commission for review.
He warned council that if they voted to table, they would have very little time left to complete the process before its due to the state election commission on Aug. 15.
“There is a small window of opportunity,” Willis said. “You could table this for one meeting, but then the next meeting is July 28 and then (there is another meeting on) Aug. 11.”
Councilwoman Charlene McGriff prefaced her comments with praise for the commission’s hard work, though she said the project list needed to be revised before she’d vote on it.
“I wanted roads. I know we need libraries, but I wouldn’t have added Del Webb or Kershaw. The council has to look at the whole picture. The overhead budget is gonna go up and we have problems meeting general obligations now. If we table this and go back to you, the roads should be a primary concern and so is Lancaster’s library,” she said.
Though he supports the library system, Councilman Bob Bundy said the commission’s recommended numbers for the library system “are very, very high.”
“I think as Lancaster County, we need to be more conservative,” Bundy said. “An $11 million new library is more than we need at this time. I remember at one time it was going to be ‘$6 million and some of the money can be rolled into roads.’”
Bundy added that when the report is returned to council, he would like to see it include a specific list of roads that would be improved.
Councilman Steve Harper suggested a different tactic to fund some of the listed projects and other projects that were suggested by residents, including a new sports complex.
“I’d like to see a large recreation complex for the youth, but I would ask that go on a separate referendum and let the voters vote. We should also adjust some of these figures down,” Harper said.
The amount of funding allocated for roads in the commission’s report was not enough, said Councilman Jack Estridge. He noted that the present recommendation would only help fix about 45 miles of roads.
“It won’t get it done,” Estridge said. “I just can’t support all these other items. We need to come up with another way of funding, maybe a property tax.”
Councilmen Brian Carnes and Larry McCullough agreed that the funding percentage allocated for roads should be drastically raised; Carnes lobbying for 75 to 80 percent, while McCullough suggested 90 to 95 percent.
With four of the commission members standing before him, McCullough said he was worried they had gotten off track from what council initially tasked them with.
“When this got started, we were talking about roads and decided we need to do something for roads,” McCullough said. “Sometime after it was formed, scope creep occurred and one item I’m worried about it, I guess where I’m concerned, is roads.”
He also commented about this being the first time he’s heard about problems with the county’s public safety radio system.
“In my six years on council, I’ve never heard about the radios and now it’s a life and death situation. There are any number of different things from a radio perspective that can be done,” McCullough said. “What perplexes me is where did this life and death concern come from?”
He suggested placing any projects other than roads onto separate referendums and letting voters consider each project individually.
“What we continually hear are roads, roads, roads. We hear we don’t get businesses because of roads. We don’t get different things because of roads and it’s impacting public safety,” McCullough said.
Like Willis, he was also concerned about the time frame and said the ordinance must be removed from the table at council’s July 28 meeting if they wish to move forward.
“So we only have one more opportunity here,” he said.
County attorney Mike Ey reminded council that only the commission can make changes to the report, and that council can only provide recommendations for revision.
Council then voted unanimously to table the ordinance and recommit the project list back to the sales tax commission.
The commission planned to meet today, Friday, July 18, at 9 a.m. in council chambers at the Lancaster County Administration Building to discuss changes to the various projects and amounts.
Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416