Editorial: Time for some clarity to surprising tax ideas

Talk of raising the sales tax in Beaufort County took a surprising turn this month with the announcement that the Beaufort County School District might also want a sales-tax increase.

The county has for three years been discussing a referendum on raising the sales tax 1 percent to pay for capital projects, such as roads and other improvements. A newly formed commission has begun to meet to come up with a list of projects, as well as how much money would be needed and how long the tax should last.

A few days before the new commission held its first meeting, school district Superintendent Jeff Moss told the county's Finance Committee the school district was also considering a referendum for a sales-tax increase. He said he hoped the school board would decide by Nov. 16 for possible placement of a referendum on the November 2016 ballot.

Moss' announcement left some County Council members prepared to scuttle the county's plans for a tax increase. Others said the county's tax commission should proceed with forming a projects list. Some school board members have said the county and district could combine forces.

But it's unlikely county taxpayers will have the stomach for two separate sales-tax referendums, and so far, no pressing need has been presented to justify a tax increase by either the county or the school board.

The county's previous sales-tax commission came up with a long list of projects last year totaling $221 million. That effort collapsed under its own weight, with too many projects costing too much money. To rein in the new effort, council members have said they want to cut the cost in half and have a tighter focus on the proposed projects.

Moss, however, has not yet stated a need for the school district, other than to say the tax would be for new schools, repairs and something about sharing with local colleges. The school board has not even voted on it, so we're not sure why he's coming forward now.

The district recently completed building the $25 million River Ridge Academy, a prekindergarten through eighth-grade school in Bluffton. And construction is underway on the new May River High School in Bluffton, with a $65 million budget and an expected opening next school year.

So the school board will need to make a strong case if it expects the community's support for a sales-tax hike. This same board should also bear in mind it has reached a low point in public opinion because of the brief hiring of Moss' wife for a $90,000-a-year job in the district's central office after Moss changed the nepotism rule. So any proposal the board comes up with will be met with heavier skepticism than usual in a community with a strong track record of supporting school construction bond issues.

Meanwhile, a team of appointed volunteers has begun discussing priorities for a tax increase that several county officials are now saying is doomed because of the school district's interest in a referendum.

To be fair to the commission and in lieu of this new information from Moss, County Council should vote again on whether it wants to proceed with a referendum. Otherwise, another commission could be wasting its time.

The school board will also need to make a case for what it needs and why.