Sales tax projects must meet objectives

A Beaufort County commission must be brutal as it pares down an inflated list of projects to benefit from a 1 percent sales tax increase.

newsroom@islandpacket.comMay 25, 2014 

Local governments and organizations have certainly caught on that a new funding source may come online and haven't been shy about vying for a piece of the proceeds. The University of South Carolina Beaufort wants a convention center. Port Royal wants to purchase its port. The city of Beaufort wants a parking garage. The list goes on and on.

Collectively, the projects total a whopping $375 million. A 1 percent sales tax increase, if approved by voters in the November election, could generate as much as $240 million during eight years for the projects. Of course, Beaufort County Council could choose to shorten the duration of the tax increase and lessen the amount of revenue generated.

The situation creates a mammoth task for a county tax commission charged with paring the list down and presenting it to County Council.

So what should come off the list?

We agree with several County Council members who say the list contains far more "wants" than actual "needs." Council chairman Paul Sommerville's assessment that the list resembles a grab bag sounds about right to us. It shouldn't be too difficult for commission members to separate valid needs from Christmas wish lists. For example, an Olympic-size swimming pool for Whale Branch Early College High School seems excessive.

We would also urge the commission and county council to identify projects that the individual governments or organizations could not achieve on their own through private fundraising or utilizing current funding sources. For example, a Beaufort County request for money to improve sidewalks on rural roads in the Sheldon Township area is one that the county could do now without outside help. And some of the items on USCB's list, including the construction of a recreation complex and a renovation of its Center for Arts on its Historic Beaufort Campus, could likely be accomplished with private donations.

Additionally:

  • The commission and County Council should think big picture. Council member Stu Rodman is right that a few large, game-changing projects that improve the quality of life throughout the county is preferable to dozens of small, tit-for-tat ones that benefit a few. If the commission deems that such visionary projects are not on the list, then there is no need for a sales tax increase.

  • Beaufort County must do its due diligence. Each project should include a realistic cost estimate including a healthy contingency fund in case of cost overruns. Projects should also be as close to shovel-ready as possible so that work could begin quickly once the dollars start flowing. And the recipients should be financially capable of maintaining the project once the sales tax dollars cease.

  • The projects list has to be realistic and sound because, assuming the sales tax increase passes voter muster, it locks up a viable funding source for up to eight years. County residents will rightfully be opposed to additional tax increases during that time period. So those in charge of picking the projects must be brutal in their paring of excess and honest about whether the projects are worthy of foregoing increased funding for other projects and services for many years to come.

  • County Council must approve the projects list by Aug. 15 if the sales tax measure is to go before voters in November. But the proposal could potentially die before then if county officials aren't prudent in the current task at hand

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