David Lauderdale

Sales tax fact check: Answering citizens ripping the Nov. 6 Beaufort County roads referendum

What’s the Beaufort Penny Referendum — and what do I need to know before I vote?

The Beaufort Penny Referendum is a one cent transportation tax that will be on the ballots in the upcoming election. Here's what that means for Beaufort County roadways — and consumers.
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The Beaufort Penny Referendum is a one cent transportation tax that will be on the ballots in the upcoming election. Here's what that means for Beaufort County roadways — and consumers.

Let’s do a little fact-checking on complaints about the 1 percent transportation sales tax referendum that will be on Tuesday’s ballot in Beaufort County.

Following are some comments posted online with our coverage, with my response.

“Uhm, that’s a NO. If I’m not mistaken the gas tax increased in January 2018 for the same reasons? Did that money disappear or become payroll and union dues?”

Good question.

State Sen. Tom Davis said the gas tax goes to two places, about 50/50: SCDOT to maintain existing roads and bridges, and the State Infrastructure Bank, which doles out money for new capital projects.

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And that’s the crux of the local sales tax question, at least as it pertains to the new bridges to Hilton Head (and associated corridor upgrade). That job, estimated at $240 million, requires money from the infrastructure bank. The bank demands a local match. Yes, it’s pay to play. (Davis, like us, opposed the new gas tax in that it did not address the true problem: the parochial spoils system South Carolina uses to allocate road funding.)

So, $80 million produced by the local sales tax over the next four years would hopefully be matched with $120 million from the infrastructure bank to do the entire bridge project. Gov. Henry McMaster has indicated his support for that. The other $40 million is already in hand to deal with the oldest of the four spans to Hilton Head. That bridge was built in 1956. I won’t tell you which one it is, but it wobbles. (Just kidding.)

So, yes, the plan includes using the state gas tax.

“SCDOT supposedly has money allocated for bridge repair. Problem is, our elected officials don’t just want the bridge repaired, they want in expanded so even more lanes of traffic can get stuck at the lights at Squire Pope and Spanish Wells (roads on Hilton Head).”

But it makes sense to address more than one of four spans, and the roads leading to them, at once rather than spread the misery out over many years. Construction time, aesthetics and a coordinated plan are touted as the advantages.

And, yes, coordinating existing traffic lights would be helpful, as well as saying “no” to any new traffic lights.

“Let the tourists pay for it. It already costs enough to live around here.”

Good idea. But they do pay for it. It is said nonresidents will pay half of this temporary sales tax.

And give tourists credit for all the other stuff they buy for us.

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On Hilton Head, the tax on overnight lodging is 10 percent.

Of that, a nickel goes to the state general fund to pay for all of our state services.

Two cents goes to the state accommodations tax, most of which comes back home to do things like keep the lights on at the arts center.

Two cents goes to Hilton Head’s beach preservation fund, which is the envy of the coastal world because it pays for expensive beach nourishment. Simply put: No tourists, no beach. And: No beach, no economy.

One cent goes to a Hilton Head accommodations tax, which helps pay the public safety costs associated with all those extra bodies lying around getting sunburned.

Beyond that, we have a 2 percent “hospitality tax” on prepared food and drink. Tourists tip us nicely on that one.

So, it’s fair to say the tourists should pay. But recognize that they are paying a lot to improve our corner of the world.

“Take some of the billions of dollars spent from the nuclear plant to nowhere and fix everything wrong in this state.”

Great idea. But that money is gone. “Sunken costs,” they might call it. And Sen. Davis, who has been yammering about this for some time, said that even the salvage idea won’t help. He said if they sell parts of the stuff actually built before the power companies abandoned the job, bond holders would have a lien on that cash.

“If I believed that the government was going to responsibly use that tax money it would have my vote, but after seeing how Boundary Street has been done, I can’t support surrendering any more of my hard earned money. I will vote no.”

Nice thought, but the Boundary Street project in Beaufort has nothing at all to do with this.

“Why does Hilton Head always get the biggest piece of the money? I vote NO!”

Lady’s Island would get $30 million, which ain’t chump change. Another $10 million would go to areas throughout the county. And $80 million would go to the Hilton Head area because that’s where the need is at this point.

Beaufort County voters have approved two of four previous sales tax referendums for road improvements. The first one to pass was in 1998, and it widened S.C. 170 from Okatie to the Beaufort city line, including new bridges over the Broad and Chechessee rivers. A 2006 referendum included a lot of Beaufort- and Bluffton-area projects because that’s where the need was at the time.

So, it’s not always Hilton Head.

And if you look at Beaufort County tax revenue, it should be easy to see that what is good for Hilton Head is good for everyone in Beaufort County. And vice versa. What is good for the military installations in Beaufort is good for Hilton Head and Bluffton. We’re a mighty small county not to realize that we’re all in this together.

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