Beaufort County panel recommends $221 million in projects for proposed sales tax

zmurdock@islandpacket.comJune 4, 2014 

Twenty-one proposals with a total price tag of more than $221 million have been approved by a Beaufort County panel considering projects that could be paid for with a 1 percent sales tax.

The Capital Project Sales Tax Commission's list of projects includes improvements to Bluffton Parkway, the purchase of the Port of Port Royal, and sports facilities and an arena for the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

The list and the ballot language that would accompany it now go to County Council, which will decide whether to let voters have the ultimate say in a referendum in November's general election.

If approved, the tax would raise about $30 million each year and would last eight years, the maximum allowed by state law, county attorney Josh Gruber said. The tax would end after eight years or when the projects are paid for, whichever comes first, Gruber added.

The commission's final list is about a third of the more than $600 million in projects pitched in the past month by public and private groups across Beaufort County.

Included in the final list is a $24 million arena for USCB's Hilton Head Gateway Campus, $22.4 million for sewer improvements along the May River in Bluffton and on Hilton Head Island, and more than $33 million for road improvements throughout the county. It also includes a $3 million contribution to the expected $5 million cost of designing a Bluffton Parkway extension to Interstate 95 -- Jasper County will be expected to fund the remainder, the commission decided.

The list also includes almost $60 million for land acquisition.

As much as $17 million could be used to buy the Port of Port Royal, and if the purchase can be made for less, the balance could be spent on infrastructure improvements there, Gruber said.

About $19.5 million would buy land for a parking garage and to expand Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in Beaufort.

Another $23 million would be used to buy 800 acres near Yemassee that would become an industrial park.

The County Council's Governmental Committee will discuss the commission's recommendations before passing them to the full council, Gruber said.

County Council is then required to hold three readings and a public hearing on the possible referendum before it can be submitted to the county elections office for inclusion on the November ballot. Under state law, the council can only approve or deny the list, not change its contents or language.

When the tax panel first met in late April, some of its members were skeptical they could fully vet potential projects in time. However, all of the members said Wednesday they were confident in the final list.

"I feel now there is enough time," commission chairman Craig Forrest of Sun City said. "We did a good job. I'd like to say that this thing went a lot better and a lot smoother than I thought it would be."

During a half-dozen public workshops, the commission thoroughly discussed each of the projects, commission members Scott Graber and Scott Richardson said.

Whether voters decide to approve the tax or not, the process of creating the list has highlighted needs throughout the county, member Bill Robinson said.

"I think we've been pretty tough. I don't think this has been a kumbaya process," Forrest said. "We're not here to advocate it or not. Voters can decide that. But I think if they do, we're all going to be pretty proud of Beaufort County and what it looks like in the end."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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