Beaufort County committee cautiously backs sales tax

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comJune 16, 2014 

A 1-percent sales tax to pay for capital projects received support from a Beaufort County Council committee Monday, but with some reservations.

Each member of the council's Governmental Committee has concerns about some of the 21 projects the proposed tax would fund, at a cost of about $221 million.

However, each conceded the council will never unanimously agree on every project on the list, but that should not halt worthy school-sidewalk and road-improvement projects.

The committee voted 5-1 Monday, with Councilman Brian Flewelling absent, to recommend the tax and discuss it further at the next meeting of the entire council, June 23 in Beaufort.

Committee member Tabor Vaux cast the lone opposing vote. Jerry Stewart, Cynthia Bensch, Gerald Dawson, Laura Von Harten and Rick Caporale voted for the proprosal, although Caporale indicated he might not do so when the issue comes before the full council.

"You've got to ask yourself, 'What's the trade-off?'" Caporale said. "Am I willing to spend $221 million to be sure $100 million worth of essential projects gets done?"

This month, an independent county commission approved the list of projects, which includes shifting a section of Bluffton Parkway, buying the Port of Port Royal, and building sports facilities and an arena for the University of South Carolina Beaufort. If approved, the tax would raise about $30 million a year and would last up to eight years, the maximum allowed under state law, county attorney Josh Gruber has said.

County Council is required to hold three readings and a public hearing on the referendum proposal before it can be added to the ballot in November's general election. Under state law, the council can only approve or reject the list; it cannot change its contents or language.

Despite Monday's vote, the measure might lack support on Hilton Head Island and in unincorporated parts of northern Beaufort County.

With no projects proposed for the Sheldon, Dale, Lobeco and Burton areas, Dawson said the voters he represents are unlikely to support it. He added he has not decided if he will back putting the tax on the November ballot.

"I'm voting it forward but on the pretense that the citizens will weigh in, and we'll have further public discussion," he said.

Caporale indicated he would not support the tax. Hilton Head Island's other council representatives, Stu Rodman and Steve Fobes, said they sense little support for the tax among their constituents.

"My sense is that it's highly unlikely it'll past muster with the citizens, even if we end up putting it on the ballot," Rodman said.

Rodman and Fobes are not on the Governmental Committee but Fobes attended and Rodman phoned into its meeting Monday.

Bensch and Von Harten said they have not decided if they will ultimately vote to put the tax question on the ballot.

Vaux said he does not favor holding the referendum because not enough time was given to vet the projects the tax would fund.

"It was not the commission's fault at all," Vaux said, "... but I feel we tried to slide this in at the last second, and as a result, we basically had wish lists from so many local groups. I just don't think there was enough time to do it and do it right."

However, the council should consider putting the question to voters before it kills the proposed tax, Councilman Jerry Stewart said.

"I certainly don't agree with all of (the projects)," Stewart said. "But I think we would be amiss as a council if we tried to pass judgment on what the citizens of this county would do."

Fobes disagreed.

"Although I believe there's merit in putting it on the ballot and letting voters decide, I'm not sure this is the appropriate thing to do in this instance," he said. "I'm not sure anyone could convince voters that all these have merit."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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