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Let voters decide how to pay for county needs

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John Baker

The current 1 percent Capital Projects Sales Tax which was enacted to finance the construction of the new Lancaster County Courthouse is expected to expire in 2015.

Lancaster County Council has established a Capital Projects Sales Tax Commission to consider what projects should be funded in the event that the voters consent to extend the capital projects sales tax for another seven years.

Several major proposals have been submitted for the commission’s consideration. Each of these proposals is worthy of consideration.

However, I do not believe that a 1 percent Capital Projects Sales Tax is the appropriate funding mechanism.

As every Lancaster County resident is all too well aware, the condition of our highways is abysmal, and is deteriorating every day. It is adversely impacting our ability to attract new businesses and new jobs to Lancaster County. There seems little likelihood that the legislature will raise the gasoline tax. Furthermore, even if they were to agree to do so, we have no guarantee that the monies collected will be distributed fairly.

However, we do have an alternative.

Chapter 37 of Title 4 of the S.C. Code of Laws provides that voters of a county can establish a Transportation Facilities Sales Tax of up to 1 percent for up to 25 years to be overseen by a transportation authority appointed by County Council. The money collected may only be used for transportation infrastructure, which must be detailed in the proposal to be put on the ballot for the approval of the voters. This is the approach that I favor.

The 1 percent capital projects sales tax is currently bringing in about $2 million per quarter, and has been growing at an average rate of 3 percent per quarter. It is probably unreasonable to expect that it will continue to grow at that rate indefinitely. However, if County Council agreed to put the Transportation Facilities Sales Tax before the voters, and if it were then approved, then with a growth rate of 1 percent per quarter and an inflation rate of 1.5 percent per year it can be expected to bring in about $340 million over the next 25 years.

By excluding federal-aid eligible highways, we should require no more than $200 million to resurface the remaining existing paved highways in Lancaster County. This would leave at least $140 million for highway reconstruction, which is needed on highways such as Riverside Road and Taxahaw Road.

In addition, the Transportation Facilities Sales Tax proposal should provide for the following limitations on funding:

u No federal-aid eligible highway shall be eligible for funding from the Transportation Facilities Sales Tax

u No highway not a part of either of the State Highway System or the County Highway System as of Jan. 1, 2015, shall be eligible for funding from the Transportation Facilities Sales Tax

u Only paved highways shall be eligible for funding from the Transportation Facilities Sales Tax

u Transportation Facilities Sales Tax funding shall not be used for new construction or lane additions

u No highway shall be eligible for Transportation Facilities Sales Tax funding more than once during the term of the tax.

The problem that we run into is that we can have either a Capital Projects Sales Tax or a Transportation Facilities Sales Tax, but not both.

I strongly believe that a Transportation Facilities Sales Tax is what we should adopt, and that other worthy projects should be financed by way of General Obligation Bonds, which come from property taxes.

The other major proposals that are currently up for consideration include:

u Library

- Indian Land upgrades

$614,000 (0.20 mil, $0.80 per year on a $100,000 home)

- Kershaw upgrades

$1,329,000 (0.43 mil, $1.72 per year on a $100,000 home)

- Lancaster (new construction) $10,885,000 (3.51 mils, $14.04 per year on a $100,000 home)

u Recreation –

- County Wide (upgrades)

$3 million (0.97 mil, $3.88 per year on a $100,000 home)

- Lancaster (new complex) –

$17,000,000 (5.48 mils, $21.92 per year on a $100,000 home)

u Radio System (Police, Fire, EMS) –

- County Wide (replacement) –

$10,000,000 (3.23 mils, $12.92 per year on a $100,000 home)

If all of the property tax proposals are submitted to and approved by the voters, the total tax increase would be $42.8 million (13.82 mils, $55.28 per year on a $100,000 home).

The millage rates cited above are estimates based upon a 15-year bond at 3.125 percent interest, using a value of the mil of $259,350.

Whether we act now or later, every one of these issues is going to have to be acted upon. The problem is that the longer that we wait, the more that it is going to cost.

I recommend that the Transportation Facilities Sales Tax and each of the above items be offered separately on the ballot in place of the Capital Projects Sales Tax in November for the voters to decide upon.

I will not support any proposal that does not wholly address the issue of deteriorating highways in Lancaster County. In discussing the issue with other Lancaster County residents, I am convinced that any proposal that does not wholly address highways is doomed to failure.

It is important that every voter recognize that County Council does not have any say over state highway funding. However, County Council can give us an option for funding highway maintenance via a sales tax. It is furthermore important to realize that this proposal would not be County Council imposing a tax, but would be County Council allowing the voters to decide whether to impose a tax.

I would urge every resident of Lancaster County to contact the members of the Sales Tax Commission to express your concerns.

You should also feel free to contact me in respect to this proposal at transportation@comporium.net.

John Baker is a Lancaster County resident.