Beaufort County must act fast if it wants voters to consider a new sales tax in this fall's election, County Council members said during a retreat Friday.
The council is discussing a 1-cent, local-option sales tax that would raise additional revenue for municipalities and the county in exchange for returning some of the revenue for property-tax relief. It also is considering a capital-project sales tax to pay for big-ticket building improvements, Chairman Paul Sommerville said.
Either of those measures would require voter approval in November, but would first need to be vetted by the county and approved by County Council this summer.
Representatives of the city of Beaufort and towns of Bluffton and Port Royal have told County Council they favor a local-option sales tax. Revenue would go mostly to property-tax relief, but about 30 percent would be split among the municipalities and county to be spent at their discretion, Sommerville said.
A capital-project sales tax would require the money be dedicated to particular projects for set dollar amounts, Councilman Jerry Stewart said.
Voters approved that kind of sales tax in 2006 to raise money for road improvements, including the widening of U.S. 278 and S.C. 170 in southern Beaufort County and construction of a new J.E. McTeer Bridge in northern Beaufort County. That tax expired in 2012.
Several council members doubted there is enough time to prepare for a referendum this year.
"I think we've flat out run out of time; we've delayed ourselves into a corner," Councilman Rick Caporale said. "I think I have a hard time supporting either of the tax referendums this year. We dropped the ball."
State law requires the creation of a capital projects commission to write and review a capital-project sales tax, county attorney Josh Gruber said.
If the county votes to create such a commission at its next meeting on Feb. 24, there could still be enough time to hold public hearings and draft tax language by summer, Gruber said. If County Council were to receive the language by July 14, it could approve a ballot question to present to voters before the ballot deadline in August, he added.
Even if the those deadlines aren't met, a commission could still identify worthy projects for a future referendum and educate the public on the issue, Stewart and Sommerville said.
Council members also said they favored another sales tax referendum to raise more money for the county's Rural and Critical Lands Program, which is managed by the county's Open Land Trust. Voters have approved three ballot measures since 2000 that raised a total of $110 million for the program. The most recent was for $20 million in 2012.
The program has done well acquiring environmentally sensitive lands and could use another round of funding to finish off its core conservation mission, Councilman Stu Rodman said. However, the council should consider "tweaking" the program's conservation rules to allow for limited development on certain portions of land acquired through the program, he added. That would give the council another chance, albeit small, for economic development, and it would keep some of the land on county property-tax rolls, Councilmen Bill McBride and Stewart said.
The county has not yet determined how much it should try to raise through a ballot question this fall, according to county administrator Gary Kubic. Rodman and Councilman Steve Fobes said Friday they will discuss the program with Open Land Trust director Patty Kennedy.
Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.