A trifecta of factors appears to have combined to doom a Beaufort County sales tax increase proposal put before voters Tuesday.
The referendum would have added a penny of sales tax to every dollar spent in the county in an effort to raise roughly $120 million for infrastructure projects.
But an overly broad projects list, strong anti-tax sentiment among the electorate, and the presence on the ballot of another sales tax increase request from the school district resulted in the county’s referendum failing.
About 54 percent of voters — nearly 38,000 people — voted against the tax hike, according to unofficial results from the S.C. Elections Commission.
“When people get into an anti-tax mood, it’s easy to just say no,” Beaufort County administrator Gary Kubic said Wednesday.
County Councilwoman Cynthia Bensch said, “The people are tired of being overtaxed and underserved.”
“Voters have spoken nationally and locally; they want (the government) to do more with less,” she said.
The tax increase sought to fund more than 30 projects that ranged from upgrading Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office in-car computer systems to building a parking garage in Beaufort to designing a new arts and cultural campus on Hilton Head Island.
While many voters voiced support for some of the projects, they said they simply couldn’t vote in favor of funding all of them.
“I would like to see the Sheriff’s Office get more money, but there are a whole lot of other (projects) that I just don’t see the need for,” Bluffton voter Gary Sherman said Tuesday.
Councilman Brian Flewelling said while the projects list was well-considered and vetted by both the council and a special sales tax commission, ultimately “it was just too big.”
Kubic agreed, saying, “The problem with the ballot (referendum) was that it was a shotgun approach rather than more focused shot.”
“If we would have had more emphasis on a smaller number of projects that strictly dealt with public safety enhancements — and less of the performing arts centers and parking decks — we may have had more success,” he said.
Leaders also said competition with the school district’s bond and sales tax increase referendums, which were also voted down Tuesday, contributed to the county’s proposal failing.
“I was disheartened as soon as the school board announced they were going to do a referendum as well,” Flewelling said.
Kubic said, “There were three (ballot) initiatives for voters to consider, which makes it difficult for any one of them to pass.”
“I think there was a negative sentiment (surrounding the school district’s proposal), and I think the school board needs to re-evaluate the way it does some things,” he said. “I think they really hurt us.”
Voters in only 15 of the county’s 91 reporting precincts favored the tax increase.
Vast swaths of the county, including all of Sun City, flatly rejected the proposal.
Of the 15 precincts that voted in favor of the tax hike, several were in the Burton and Sheldon areas, several were in greater Bluffton, and five were on Hilton Head Island.
Those Hilton Head Island precincts — 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B and 10 — are made up of neighborhoods on and around Jenkins Island, the area north of Honey Horn near the schools complex, communities along Marshland Road just south of Indigo Run Plantation, and the Mitchelville Beach Park area.
It makes sense that voters in these precincts would favor the increase — in many cases the county’s projects list included infrastructure improvements that would specifically benefit them.
The referendum called for $7 million to be used to pave certain dirt roads, many of which are located within several of the districts that favored tax increase.
The measure would have also funded a $7.4 million roadway improvement project in the area of Windmill Harbour on Jenkins Island.
But even in precincts where the referendum passed, it did so by relatively small margins.
“Even the direct beneficiaries (of proposed projects) showed some concern,” Kubic said. “I have to think that’s because the wide variety of projects just wasn’t peoples’ cup of tea.”
The tax increase proposal cannot be reintroduced for at least two years.
But despite its failure, some of the projects that the tax would have funded will still likely be completed.
County leaders say certain projects are critical and are planning a bond issuance of up to $51 million.
About half of that money would be used for the Rural and Critical Land Preservation Program and stormwater capital improvement projects. The other half would be used for road safety projects and Sheriff’s Office equipment upgrades that appeared on the failed referendum’s project list.
Kubic said county officials will decide before the end of next month on a final list of projects to be funded through the bond sale that would likely occur early next year.