After a sales tax referendum failed last year, Beaufort County leaders hope local voters might feel a bit more generous with their pennies in 2018.
Beaufort County Council members and staff are working on a proposal to bring another referendum to a vote in November of next year to raise $120 million for transportation projects.
The lion’s share of that revenue, $80 million — raised over a period of four years by adding a penny tax to every dollar spent in the county — would be used to widen or replace the aging and often congested Hilton Head Island bridges, according to preliminary plans.
The bridges are plagued with “capacity issues on the existing span to and from the island,” interim county administrator Josh Gruber told county leaders earlier this week at a meeting of the County Council’s Finance Committee. Estimates “to either replace or retrofit the existing spans” are pegged at about $240 million, Gruber said.
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Discussions with state leaders have indicated the county would likely be on the hook for $80 million of that total, with the remainder coming from already allocated S.C. Department of Transportation funds and, potentially, the state transportation infrastructure bank, he said.
Funding mechanisms such as impact fees or a traditional bond sale would be unlikely to raise the necessary local cash, Gruber said.
Rather, “what we are advocating is a very limited, narrowly tailored, temporary sales tax” increase that would bring the tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, he said.
In addition to the projects on the bridges and nearby portions of U.S. 278, preliminary plans for the tax money would raise $30 million for traffic improvements on Lady’s Island along the Sea Island Parkway corridor between the Woods Memorial Bridge and the Chowan Creek Bridge, and $10 million for new sidewalks and pathways throughout the county.
This relatively concise list of projects reflects a stark contrast between the potential 2018 sales tax referendum and the failed 2016 referendum.
Last year’s referendum aimed to raise roughly $130 million for about three dozen capital infrastructure projects, a handful of which were later funded through a bond sale.
“A small number of highly visible projects ... are more apt to pass than laundry list of things,” Councilman Stu Rodman said earlier this week.
Beaufort County wasn’t the only group asking voters to raise the sales tax by one percent in 2016. The Beaufort County School District offered its own referendum — which also failed — that would have raised an estimated $313 million for a host of capital projects.
District Superintendent Jeff Moss is again urging the Beaufort County Board of Education to ask voters for money to keep pace with growing enrollment and address aging facilities.
County Councilman Gerald Dawson said earlier this week that county leaders “need to be prepared for the school district to bring forward a referendum.”
“They have needs just like we do,” he said.
Gruber said it is important for the County Council to approve a measure that would put the referendum on the 2018 ballot sooner rather than later.
The reason for the time crunch is a straightforward one: The Beaufort County Board of Elections puts referendum questions on the ballot in the order in which they are approved. For example, if the county approves its referendum before the school board does, the county’s question will appear first on the voters’ ballots.
While the county can’t control how voters will ultimately decide, “we can control our timing so we can be on the ballot first,” Gruber said.
“I think that does matter,” he said.
The County Council is expected to introduce a preliminary framework for the referendum at a full council meeting later this month.