Beaufort News

USCB and TCL voted out of school sales tax plan

Only the Beaufort County School District now stands to benefit from its 1 percent educational sales tax referendum, after board members decided Tuesday against sharing revenue with two higher education institutions.

The board was one vote shy of the eight needed to include the University of South Carolina Beaufort and Technical College of the Lowcountry on the district’s tax referendum. The board needed two-thirds of its full body to approve the measure, which would have allotted up to $14.1 million apiece to USCB and TCL over 10 years.

Three members, JoAnn Orischak, Michael Rivers and David Striebinger, voted against the agreement. Board chairwoman Mary Cordray, who is USCB’s budget director, abstained.

The harshest critics of the dashed agreement, like Greater Republican Club president Joe Iaco, called the plan to share the money with the colleges an attempt to buy votes for the sales tax plan. Others, like Beaufort representative Striebinger, said they simply thought the district should ask only for what it needs and return the rest of the sales tax revenue to voters.

“Many board members think we’re K-16,” he said Wednesday, referring to the idea that education does not stop after 12th grade but continues into post-secondary. “I just disagree with that. I think (USCB and TCL) are great institutions, but I just don’t see that as within our purview to give money to them.”

Rivers, meanwhile, a former student of TCL and USCB, said he voted down the agreement because of lack of trust from the public and an apparent perception that the district is “corrupt.”

The school district’s 1 percent sales tax is expected to generate about $282 million over 10 years. About $217 million of the revenue would go toward capital projects, such as new schools, roof replacements and HVAC upgrades, and another portion would be used to reduce residents’ property taxes. It wasn’t clear Wednesday how the estimated $28.2 million in revenue that was set aside for the two institutions would be used.

“That $28.2 million figure, just like the overall total, is just an estimate because we can’t know how much money the education sales tax would bring in,” spokesman Jim Foster said Wednesday. “That being said, any revenues that would have gone to USCB or TCL could be used to provide additional tax relief to Beaufort County taxpayers and/or reduce the district’s debt.”

Attempts to reach Cordray and Superintendent Jeff Moss, who first suggested the money sharing, were unsuccessful Wednesday.

USCB spokeswoman Kerry Jarvis said the university was disappointed in the school board’s vote, which spoiled plans to use district tax revenue to build a $15 million academic building at its Hilton Head Gateway campus in Bluffton.

TCL had envisioned building a $12.5 million Regional Workforce Training Center at its New River campus in Bluffton.

Still, Jarvis said, “We’re very hopeful for the future ... and our region is growing, so there’s just lots of opportunities for growth.”

TCL President Richard Gough echoed Jarvis, adding that the college’s chances of finding alternative funding for the planned center were grim.

He also said that he did not think Moss’ main motivation in offering to share funds was to win support from voters. However, Gough said, “I’m sure USCB and TCL’s inclusion would have brought in a few more votes.”

Both institutions are still included in Beaufort County’s 1 percent sales tax referendum, which is estimated to yield $120 million in revenue over four years. That plan will also go before voters in November.

From that tax, USCB hopes to receive $3.15 million to build a new Osher Lifelong Learning Center location in Bluffton. It is separately getting a new $24.5 million campus on Hilton Head funded entirely by town property taxes.

For TCL, the county sales tax would generate $11.6 million to build a 25,000-square-foot Culinary Arts Teaching Institute and $2.5 million to renovate an empty administrative building on its Beaufort campus to add training for health sciences jobs such as respiratory therapists and dental hygiene technicians.

The majority of the school board did not mind helping those institutions.

Joseph Dunkle, who represents Port Royal, said his residents “overwhelmingly” supported sharing tax revenue with USCB and TCL, and he personally believes supporting the schools’ technical education programs is a boon to district students and the county economy.

“I wish it would have gone through, but the support wasn’t there from the board members,” he said.

Rebecca Lurye: 843-706-8155, @IPBG_Rebecca