After three years of attempts to raise the sales tax by 1 percent to pay for infrastructure needs and local projects, council members learned last week that the Beaufort County School District may seek a sales-tax referendum of its own in November 2016.
That news has prompted some council members to favor dropping a county sales-tax hike, worried voters would balk at the prospect of referendums from both the county and school board.
Now, an independent county commission that met for the first time Wednesday is beginning work to develop the county's referendum, but chances are fading that the proposal will make it onto the ballot next year, let alone get voters' backing.
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Council members at a finance committee meeting Monday considered putting the commission on hold until they decide whether to pursue a 1 percent sales-tax, but they ultimately chose to let the commission's first meeting go forward. On Wednesday, the independent group learned about their responsibilities and elected Mike Sutton of Beaufort as chairman.
But alternatives to a capital projects sales tax remain possible, county officials say.
They could choose to partner with the school district on a joint sales-tax referendum or could ask voters to approve a 1 percent local-option sales-tax, which would provide property-tax relief to residents as well as revenue for the county and local towns.
In Beaufort County, a local-option sales tax would raise about $30 million each year, with about 70 percent going to property-tax relief. The county would receive about $4.5 million, and Hilton Head Island, Bluffton, Port Royal and Beaufort would split the rest based on population and sales.
County Council opposed that option in 2014 and later that year shot down a proposal for a capital-improvement projects sales-tax that would have raised more than $221 million over eight years.
County officials have previously said they hoped the new commission would consider a referendum to raise about $120 million.
However, some council members say that commission's work will be pointless if the council does not wish to compete with a sales-tax referendum by the school district, which says it needs money for new schools and upgrades.
Councilman Rick Caporale said last week he was uneasy with the school district's plans.
"I guess we're stuck now shaping our intentions around (the district's)," Caporale said at last week's council meeting. "But I think they need to be quick to speak to this because there's other business in the county besides building schools."
Last week, school board member Paul Roth said he understood the council's interest in the school district's "major shift in financial planning."
"We don't want to introduce any unpleasant surprises," he said.
Roth added that the county and school board must coordinate to raise money and carry out projects.
"We can't grow unless we get the roads and infrastructure and the sewers and all that kind of thing, which the county supplies, so there's a lot of thinking to be done," he said.
Superintendent Jeff Moss addressed the council's finance committee Monday to discuss the district's plans for raising revenue, which it would also share with local colleges. Moss said the school board had not formally settled on asking voters to approve a 1 percent sales tax. He said he hoped board members would decide by Nov. 16.
County administrator Gary Kubic announced that he no longer favored a sales tax to fund county capital improvement projects.
Neither did Councilwoman Alice Howard. Several others said they weren't sure which direction to take.
Council Vice Chairman Jerry Stewart implored council members to remain open-minded.
"I understand we cannot make a firm commitment," said Stewart, who also leads the finance committee. "But we owe it to the commission, if we're going to move it forward, that we're at least going to take their recommendation seriously."
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.