Council made right call to nix sales tax increase

Beaufort County Council was right to throw out a controversial proposal to increase the sales tax by 1 percent for up to eight years to pay for more than $221 million in capital projects.

While some of the projects were worthy of public support -- particularly several traffic and roadway improvements -- the list also included projects that were wants, not needs, such as an arena for the University of South Carolina Beaufort. Does a USC satellite campus really need an arena, some residents rightly asked. And if so, shouldn't private fundraising pay for it? They had similar concerns about money for a new commerce park when a former park sits nearly empty.

Other projects, including the purchase of the port of Port Royal, were premature. Recently approved legislation is expected to hasten the sale of the port to a private developer, a deal far superior to a municipality owning it. And questions about fairness also lingered -- is it fair to ask county residents to pay for the port when a municipality would turn around and sell it and pocket the proceeds?

And still other projects should be paid for in existing budgets. That's the case for a handful of sidewalk projects that would connect neighborhoods to schools. Such relatively inexpensive projects should be included in the county's annual budget or covered by state-allowed borrowing.

Kudos to a majority of county council that showed leadership, choosing to quash the proposal instead of putting it on the November ballot for voters to have the final say.

A minority of council members argued that residents should get to decide, not council. We disagree. Putting a sales tax proposal on the ballot sends voters a signal that these are vetted, legitimate projects worthy of the public's financial consideration. That is simply not true of some of the 21 projects that collectively resembled a Christmas list instead of a grocery list.

So who's to blame for the wish list? County Council shares part of it, choosing to consider a sales tax increase before deciding what the increase would pay for. Residents saw that as putting the horse before the cart. And a county-created committee, charged with pairing the list down, made matters worse. Instead of being brutal and slashing the list down to a handful of essential public needs, it opted for a tit-for-tat approach that resulted in dozens of projects with limited countywide appeal and impact.

After all of the work and talk, County Council is now engaging in a real discussion about funding real needs. The county is considering borrowing funds to pay for the road projects, including improvements to U.S. 278 near the bridges to Hilton Head and at the entrance to Windmill Harbour, as well as the sidewalk projects near schools. Under state law, the county has $36 million in borrowing capacity it could use for the work. It may take a few years, but the work could be accomplished. We're pleased to see these realistic discussions taking place and wish it had happened a few months ago when a sales tax increase was first brought up.

And when 2016 rolls around and the county has another chance at a sales tax increase referendum, we hope they'll engage in similar realistic discussions that focus on big needs, not small wants.