Beaufort County Council quashes capital project sales tax

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comJune 23, 2014 

  • Proposed land preservation referendum

    A proposed referendum to continue funding the county's land preservation program received first approval at County Council's meeting Monday.

    The referendum item would raise $20 million in bonds to continue the county's Rural and Critical Lands Program, which buys land for preservation purposes. The item initially included language that would allow limited economic development on lands purchased through the program, but council members voted overwhelmingly to strike that provision at its meeting June 9.

    The referendum requires two more votes and a public hearing from the council before it can be placed on ballots this fall.

Voters won't see a 1 percent capital project sales tax on ballots in November's general election.

Beaufort County Council quashed the proposed tax at its meeting Monday night in Beaufort after hearing concerns from a dozen citizens and two-thirds of council members.

The measure would have created a 1 percent sales tax to fund 21 capital-improvement projects with a total price tag of more than $221 million.

Most council members argued that reservations about some of the larger projects outweighed the need for public safety construction, such as road and school pathway improvements.

This month, an independent county commission approved the list of projects, which included 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.

But council members criticized the list as a grab bag of wish-list projects, not a representation of essential public needs.

"I've been torn for this probably more than anything I've had to deal with on council," Chairman Paul Sommerville said. "My first inclination is to let the voters decide. But if I vote for this, I'm throwing something out there that scares me."

The tax would have raised about $30 million annually and would have lasted up to eight years, the maximum time allowed under state law, county attorney Josh Gruber has said.

"It's a tax for the maximum amount of time by law and for the maximum amount" it could raise, Councilman Tabor Vaux said. "I just don't think they had the time to dwindle that down, and I just don't think six months (of voter consideration) for an eight-year tax is enough."

Sommerville and Vaux were two of seven council members who voted to keep the tax off ballots this fall, all of whom agreed the list of projects needed more time for further vetting.

However, council members Gerald Dawson, Laura Von Harten, Bill McBride and Jerry Stewart argued that the council should not usurp voters' opportunity to decide on the tax for themselves. They voted to put the proposed tax on November ballots.

"These aren't things they just picked out of a hat," Von Harten said. "I'm not 100 percent in favor with everything that's on the list, but I think they had to make some compromises."

Most of the feedback from residents Monday expressed the same concerns as the majority of council members.

"This seems like we're putting the cart before the horse, and frankly (the list) doesn't always seem to differentiate between needs and wants for the community," Bluffton resident Craig Kodat said. "I realize there are legitimate projects on there, but there's also a lot of fat."

Beaufort Tea Party leader Ann Ubelis agreed. More than two dozen of the group's members attended the meeting, and several spoke.

"Many projects have nothing to do with public safety and are a dream wish list," Ubelis said. "This is a regressive tax that hurts the poorest among us. While many of us can afford a few extra dollars, they can't."

Council members said they need to consider other ways to fund some of the projects they and the commission that created the list agreed on. Those projects include $17 million in upgrades to pathways to and from local schools and about $34 million in traffic and roadway upgrades, such as improvements to the entrance of Windmill Harbour and computerized signal timing.

"As elected representatives, I think very strongly that we need to listen to that advice and not go forward," Councilman Steve Fobes said. "There are projects on here, as everyone has said, that need to get done. But I don't think is the vehicle for this, unfortunately."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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