Some proposed sales-tax projects should still be finished, county leaders say

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comJune 25, 2014 

Despite voting down a proposed 1 percent sales tax Monday, some Beaufort County Council members still want to find a way to pay for some of the projects the tax would have funded.

Improvements to U.S. 278, such as the entrance to Windmill Harbour just outside Hilton Head Island, and pathways to and from schools throughout the county are imperative, council members agreed.

But finding other means of paying for them will be difficult since the county is cutting its budget to avoid a tax increase, county administrator Gary Kubic said.

"We have very little options in the upcoming two years to accomplish anything major," he said. "It's just not there. The reality is that the projects will be smaller in value, and the list will just take more time."

The council voted 7-4 on Monday to kill a proposed referendum in November on a 1 percent sales tax to fund 21 capital projects. The tax was expected to raise about $221 million over eight years or less.

Some council members said the projects list was peppered with "wish list" items. But by canceling the referendum, public safety projects on the list, which some council members are ready to commit to soon, may not have a funding source.

Council Chairman Paul Sommerville acknowledged the county and municipalities simply don't have another way to raise that kind of money under state law, which caps the amount a local government can borrow at 8 percent of the total value of assessed property in its area.

The county's state borrowing limit is about $146 million, but it has almost $93 million in outstanding debt, according to county financial reports.

On Monday, council unanimously approved another $17 million in borrowing for improvements to county buildings, such as roof repairs, renovations, and new heating and cooling systems.

That leaves about $36 million under the state cap, and county leaders agreed they would have to review the projects on the sales-tax list to decide which ones to borrow for first.

Those should include improvements to U.S. 278 near the bridges to Hilton Head and at the entrance to Windmill Harbour, to be completed before the Bluffton Parkway flyover project is finished late next year, Councilman Rick Caporale said. Those improvements also had support from the rest of the council.

Council members also supported improvements to sidewalks near various schools, such as M.C. Riley Elementary in Bluffton, Coosa Elementary in Beaufort, and Whale Branch middle and elementary schools in Seabrook.

In total, those two projects would cost $41 million, too much for the county to take on immediately, Kubic said. But done in pieces, the county might be able to borrow enough to complete at least some of that work in the next couple of years, he added.

Even opponents of the sales tax, including residents throughout the county and members of the Beaufort Tea Party, said public safety projects should be completed. It was larger projects, such as the realignment of the parkway and buying the Port of Port Royal and Yemassee industrial-park properties, that concerned residents.

"It's really triage, because we know what the list looks like, and most of us are smart enough to see which is legitimate need and which is fluff," Sommerville said.

With this year's sales-tax referendum dead, the county would have to wait until the November 2016 general election for another chance, as state law requires capital sales-tax referendums be held only in general-election years.

"Well, you need something every day," Kubic said. "It's about choices, so we'll just have to wait and see."

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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