Elected officials across Beaufort County are in a rush to get a proposal on the November ballot to raise the sales tax by one percent. The only seeming sticking point: how to spend the new money should voters approve the measure.
Council members from the city of Beaufort, town of Port Royal and town of Bluffton appear to be solidifying behind a proposal to use the proceeds to provide property tax relief for residents and additional funds for the municipalities to spend as their councils decide.
Meanwhile, Beaufort County is leaning in the other direction, favoring a capital-project proposal that would direct the funds to big-ticket county projects. County Council has yet to formulate a list of the projects the money would pay for, but ideas being bandied about include the purchase and development of 102 acres at the Pepper Hall property along U.S. 278 and the Okatie River, building upgrades, and bridge replacements. This would be a similar initiative to the way the county paid for road projects after a 2006 referendum.
To help decide which way the money should be spent (property tax relief or capital projects) and what big projects should be on the list, County Council is creating a six-member commission that includes representatives from the county and municipalities.
But we're struggling with a more basic question than how the pie should be divided: Is there a need to increase the sales tax? It doesn't appear that elected officials have put much effort in proving that yet.
We would remind these elected officials that the burden of proving the necessity of a sales tax increase lays squarely on their shoulders. Otherwise, no reason exists for the tax hike no matter the amount of work put into perfecting the funding mechanism.
And efforts to build that case should be a top priority from the onset, not an afterthought to dotting the i's and crossing the t's.
That's true, but it's not quite so clean cut. About 70 percent of new revenue would go to property tax relief. The remaining 30 percent would go to the municipalities to be used on general fund items or whatever else their council chooses. It's too early to have accurate estimates on just how much property taxes will decrease. Again, without those numbers, it's impossible to assess the appropriateness of an increase.
And while visitors would certainly pay 1 percent more for all items subject to the state's sales tax, so would residents. So while it is good that our friends from Ohio and other states would chip in when they buy beach umbrellas and sunscreen, so will residents each time they buy plants for the yard and movie tickets for Saturday night; new clothes for Sunday church and new gadgets for the kitchen -- not to mention all of that random stuff we all bring home from Walmart and Target. (Residents and visitors alike would still be spared paying any sales tax on groceries, medication and utilities -- the same as now.
We're not endorsing or discouraging a 1 percent increase in the county's sales tax at this time. There is much information that must be provided and much work for local governments to do first. They should start with the basic premise of whether an increase is needed at all.
We, along with taxpayers, stand ready to listen.