Tea party, Republican groups mounting opposition to Beaufort County sales tax proposal

mmcnab@islandpacket.comJune 2, 2014 

Two Beaufort County political groups have started a petition calling for the County Council to scuttle a sales tax proposal that could appear on this November's ballot.

Beaufort Tea Party leader Ann Ubelis said protests could also be planned if the council continues to consider putting a sales tax proposal on the general election ballot. If council moves forward with the referendum and voters approve it, consumers would pay a 1 percent sales tax that would fund various capital projects.

The group Voters Against Sales Tax, created by Greater Bluffton Republican Club chairman Joseph Iaco, began circulating the petition last week. It had 125 signatures as of 7 p.m. Monday. Ubelis said the Tea Party and the Greater Bluffton Republican Club both believe the projects the sales tax would support are "frivolous."

Ubelis said none of the projects are imperative and some -- changes to traffic signals, for example -- could be completed when existing equipment is replaced, without raising taxes.

"The projects are frivolous," Ubelis said. "The county is already raising our millage rates to cover their capital-improvements fund. This would be a double whammy."

During a meeting Wednesday, the county's six-person Capital Sales Tax Commission is expected to finalize a list of projects and decide how many years the tax should be levied. The commission will pass its recommendations to County Council, which will ultimately determine whether the proposal goes before voters in November.

The council also would have to approve the list of the projects and the language on the ballot by Aug. 15.

Ubelis said she plans to attend the Wednesday meeting to determine how to proceed with her group's protest.

"You can't go to battle without knowing what's going on," she said.

Last week, the commission cut $300 million in projects from a long list of proposals suggested by local governments and community organizations seeking a share of the revenue.

The commission is expected to cut more projects Wednesday in order to reduce the total estimated cost for all the projects to about $240 million -- the maximum a 1 percent sales tax would generate if kept in place for the maximum eight years allowed under state law.

The commission's role is to review and trim the list so the council does not vote on a "grab-bag" of projects, Council Chairman Paul Sommerville said. Ubelis said she didn't think the council will move the proposal forward, but Sommerville said killing it before voters weigh in is an ethical dilemma the council is wrestling with.

Sommerville has received between 100 and 150 emails about the sales-tax proposal, he said. He normally answers all his emails but has been unable to reply to most of them about the sales tax because they came from an automated account that didn't include a return email address.

"We are not the bad guys," he said. "If the referendum is approved, we give the people the right to vote on it. If the majority doesn't want it, they will vote against it."

Ubelis said she worries that if the sales tax passes, it could affect large purchases residents make, like a car or new home.

Car buyers, however, pay a maximum sales tax of $300 to the state and are exempt from local sales taxes. Sales of real estate, including home purchases, are not subject to sales tax, according to state law.

An email sent by Voters Against Sales Tax said the tax probably would cost an average family of four an additional $444 a year.

Ubelis said she thinks her two-person household would pay more.

Follow reporter Matt McNab at twitter.com/IPBG_Matt.

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