Panhandle residents talk capital project sales tax

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By Reece Murphy

INDIAN LAND – Lancaster County Capital Project Sales Tax commissioners met with Indian Land residents Tuesday evening, April 29, for the second of five public hearings to help determine future uses for the county’s 1 cent capital project sales tax.

The commission is gathering input from county residents on what capital projects they’d like to see a reauthorized penny sales tax fund after the current capital project sales tax ends next year with early payoff on the county’s new courthouse.

Commissioners will use residents’ proposals, along with other considerations such as need, feasibility, costs and benefit for the entire county, to craft a reauthorization ballot measure for county voters to decide during the November general election.

Like the current capital project sales tax, a reauthorized sales tax would generate an estimated $42 million or more in revenue for local capital projects over seven years.

In contrast to the commission’s first hearing April 24 with its modest attendance, Tuesday night’s meeting drew a full house of about 45 people to the Indian Land Recreation Center.

“We’re projecting that the courthouse, and this is only a projection, will be paid off by the second or third quarter of next year,” commission chairman Larry Durham said, in welcoming residents. “So the new courthouse is just about paid off.

“The purpose of this public hearing is to give you a chance to say what you want to say to us,” he said.

IL proposals

Topping the list of proposals during the Indian Land meeting were two main topics – emergency communications and roads.

Indian Land Volunteer Fire Department Chief Joe Pezzuti and Pleasant Valley Fire Department Chief Greg Nicholson were among those who spoke in support of upgrading the county’s current analog communication system to a more technically advanced 800-megahertz digital system.

All Lancaster County and city of Lancaster public safety agencies now use the same nearly- outdated VHF system by Motorola. The company plans to discontinue technical and parts support for the equipment in 2016.

Pezzuti said during a time in which mutual aid is increasingly important, Lancaster County is severely lagging behind most surrounding counties in emergency communications.

“There is an industry standard for interoperability of radio systems,” Pezzuti said. “All surrounding counties are using this standard except for Lancaster County.

“That means when we run mutual aid with any of these departments, we are at a severe disadvantage,” he said. “Either we have to give them one of our VHF radios, or they have to give us one of their 800 radios to communicate during the incident.”

Pezzuti said in a recent incident, a county firefighter and Indian Land EMS responded to a fatal automobile accident on Doby’s Bridge Road to provide mutual aid for York County. Pezzuti said critical scene and patient information had to be transmitted back to Station 10 via radio through another local firefighter in between the two locations.

A similar incident happened during a woods fire on Six Mile Creek Road, the same road on which the station is located.

Since the current radio system only records on one fire channel, standard operating procedure is to switch to a secondary channel for operations at a fire scene. Only units on scene can hear the transmissions, none of which are available to county dispatchers on the main fire communications channel.

Pezzuti said during the woods fire, Bell Town Volunteer Fire Department, 23 miles away (southwest of Lancaster near Great Falls), was using the main fire services radio channel while responding to a possible drowning.

“We tried to contact our own fire station, which is only a half mile down the road, on the secondary channel and could not reach them,” Pezzuti said. “We finally had a member leave the scene and drive to the station to get more help.

“In an 800 system, we could have more than five channels and any or all channels could be recorded and monitored,” he said. “I urge this commission to give serious considerations to upgrading Lancaster County’s outdated radio system now, and not wait until 2016 when it’s too late.”

Nicholson said PVFD firefighters routinely have trouble communicating with each other north of Fort Mill Highway (S.C. 160), an area comprising nearly 50 percent of the department’s coverage area. The signal to the rest of the county, he said, is most often either distorted or non-existent.

Nicholson said in one incident at Red Ventures, the system worked so poorly, he couldn’t even communicate with one of his men standing in the doorway of a building less than 100 yards away.

“I could have tied a note to it and thrown it at him,” Nicholson said of the VHF radio.

He said not only is the aging system frustrating, it’s failure could be a matter of life and death for the county’s first responders.

“Could you imagine being a firefighter working a fire incident in Red Ventures, Walmart, Lowes or the new Keer industries and get into trouble and cannot get anyone on your radio to help you; and me, as a chief, not knowing they’re in trouble until its possibly too late?” Nicholson said. “This is the problem we face every day on an incident scene.

“I know that everything is important and you have hard decisions to make,” he said. “But I ask you for your support on this very crucial and critical situation with our current radio system.”

The estimated cost of the new digital system is $9.5 million, including broadcasting equipment, transmission towers and radios, said Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis.

He said the towers alone could be purchased and installed for an estimated $5.5 million. The measure would “help with coverage,” he said, though issues related to the loss of support from Motorola for the rest of the system would remain.

Roads and other proposals

Several Panhandle homeowners, many of whom also supported upgrades to the communications system and other projects, also spoke in support of using the capital sales tax to fund much-needed county road improvements.

“I think if you want something for an individual area you should (disregard) it,” Indian Land resident Waylon Wilson said. “If I was going to pick, I think it would be radios, roads, whatever we need for the general public and the entire county.”

Joe Ramsey said he also thought the tax should be used for roads, including upgrades that would benefit the entire county by relieving growing traffic congestion on Charlotte Highway (U.S. 521).

“To me, the most pressing need in the Indian Land area is to come up with some parallel roads because (U.S.) 521 is going to become a parking lot,” Ramsey said. “The money needs to be used to develop roads like Henry Harris, Jim Wilson and Possum Hollow.”

Sun City resident Tom Churilla said he felt it important that the funds are “proportionately distributed to the entire county.”

“If we’re obligated, I think it should go to roads,” Churilla said. “Roads are ridiculous around here; you have to cross the center line to avoid potholes.”

John Irving said state law requires the county to hire a consultant to study local facilities and infrastructure needs, but they’re expensive.

“My question is, can this money be used to hire a consultant to study what facilities and infrastructure we need in this county?” Irving said. “We need to have a plan for this county to develop infrastructure before projects are approved.”

After the meeting, commission members met with residents one on one to answer their questions about the reauthorization process and their proposals.

Durham said he was encouraged by the full house turnout for the Indian Land hearing and said it tells him that “Indian Land cares about Lancaster County.”

“This is the public’s opportunity to tell us what they need,” Durham said. “I’d encourage people to come out and not only speak, but to listen to the comments of others.

“I think that’s important. We want folks to be engaged,” he said. “We’ll choose the projects, but we’re not making the final decision, it’s the public who will do that.”

In addition to county road improvements, other proposals discussed during the April 24 hearing in Lancaster were upgrades to the Lancaster County Library, the system’s two satellite branches in Kershaw and Indian Land and upgrades at Hope on the Hill. 

Upcoming meetings are:

• 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 6, at the Buford Recreation Center, 4073 Hurley Walters Road 

• 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 8 at the Andrew Jackson Recreation Center, 6354 N. Matson St., Kershaw 

• 6:30 p.m. May 13 at Heath Springs Town Hall, 103 Duncan St., Heath Springs 

The commission will also accept public comments via the county  website, email or traditional mail.

Deadline for public comments and submissions is May 30.

Information, forms and public comments on the proposed sales tax can be found in the County Administration Office at 101 N Main St., Lancaster, or online at www.mylancastersc.org.

Choose “Boards and Commissions” under the “Government” tab and then click on “Capital Project Sales Tax Commission” in the left side bar.

Written comments may be submitted via email to dhardin@lancastercountysc or by mail to County Administration Office, Attn: Capital Project Sales Tax Commission, P.O. Box 1809, Lancaster, SC 29720.

Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151