School district to help purchase Buckwalter Place property

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comApril 15, 2014 

The Beaufort County Board of Education will forgo up to $1.8 million in tax revenue over the next decade to help purchase land in Buckwalter Place, a Bluffton business park.

The approval, on a 6-4 vote Tuesday night with Jim Beckert absent, has the district joining a partnership among the town of Bluffton, Beaufort County and the Bluffton Public Development Corporation that is working to bring additional businesses to the park.

The vote comes two weeks after the board said it faced a $4.2-million shortfall in expected tax revenues.

"I see this as not only a way to create wealth for the town and county, but I see it as a proactive way for the school board and district to help with that," board member Evva Anderson said at the meeting.

Under the partnership, the town, county and development corporation would each contribute up to $1 million to buy about 34 acres of undeveloped property in the center and on the north side of Buckwalter Place.

The development corporation, however, does not have the money it needs for its portion of the purchase. That's where the school district comes in.

The district's participation will be much like a special tax district, according to district superintendent Jeff Moss.

"In a perfect world, I think economic development should be left to the county and municipalities," Moss said. "But because of the state's tax system, we must be a player in Beaufort County and look for other viable revenue options. This is one of those options."

Several board members expressed concern at the timing and speed of the decision.

JoAnn Orischak -- who voted against the measure -- agreed economic development is important but said it was not the right time to forgo money when the district faces both the shortfall and new expenses such as state mandates and expanding pre-kindergarten.

Geri Kinton also voted against the measure.

"I agree that this can be good and hope it is successful, but it just came at me too quickly and I needed more assurances that this will be a successful venture," she said.

HOW IT WILL WORK

Starting July 1, the school district will forgo the tax revenue it collects from the businesses currently at the commercial park, a figure Moss put at about $100,000 a year.

That revenue -- up to $1.8 million over the next decade -- will now go to help pay down the debt the corporation will incur.

Once the $1.8 million cap has been reached, the district will again collect tax revenue on those properties and any new businesses that have come to the park.

Corporation board chairman Roberts Vaux said the types of businesses officials hope to attract are ones that could generate a significant amount of tax revenue for the district.

As part of the school board's agreement, it has asked to have an ex officio position on the corporation's board. That seat would be a non-voting position, but would participate in discussions and provide input from the district.

Vaux said he would endorse that idea with the group's board.

Moss said the decision should not affect the schools' budget for the upcoming year, since the district isn't forgoing a large amount of revenue annually.

"When I look at the risk and reward," he said, "I see we are risking $100,000 and could be more than tripling our revenue stream from that area in the long run."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

Related content:

Beaufort County schools looking at $10 million increase in next year's budget, April 15, 2014

Faulty projections put Beaufort County schools in $4 million hole, April 5, 2014

Bluffton council approves up to $1M toward land purchase at Buckwalter Place, March 25, 2014

What is the Bluffton Public Development Corporation?, March 25, 2014

Bluffton economic group could borrow against special tax fund for Buckwalter Place deal, March 27, 2014

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