Officials want shorter time frame, fewer capital projects on potential sales-tax measure

Bluffton Today: By SCOTT THOMPSON, June 4, 2015

Beaufort County leaders and officials from local municipalities agree a sales tax referendum for capital projects will have more success next year if it focuses on critical needs and is vetted thoroughly by the public.

County Council voted in April to establish a state-required independent commission that would craft a proposed list of capital improvement projects, which would be paid for with a 1-cent sales tax. The panel would submit its list to council, which then would decide whether or not it would appear before voters.

Voters approved a capital project sales tax in 2006 that has since expired, but helped fund road improvements, such as the widening of U.S. 278 and S.C. 170 in southern Beaufort County.

A panel created last year spent two months reviewing more than $600 million in projects proposed by local governments, businesses and residents. It then recommended a 21-item, $221 million list to council that would have been funded over an eight-year period.

That list included included a $28 million realignment of Bluffton Parkway between Buck Island Road and Buckwalter Parkway, several infrastructure and safety improvements along U.S. 278 and new athletic facilities and an arena for the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

However, council voted 7-4 to not place the list on the ballot over concerns that it was filled with too much pork and that the commission didn’t have sufficient time to analyze the proposals more closely.

County leaders are hopeful that starting the process sooner this time will allow the commission to have more meetings to review the projects and give government leaders more time to market the final list to the public while receiving input from residents.

“We did not really give the commission adequate time to vet everything or the public time to digest everything coming forward (last year),” Councilman Jerry Stewart said Wednesday at a meeting of council’s executive committee attended by representatives from each of the county’s municipalities. “And the (government leaders) did not give the commission good enough guidelines for considering the projects.”

While County Council can’t charge the commission it creates with including specific projects on the list it develops, the commission should be given specific parameters for reviewing projects, Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka and Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett said.

“I think we were doing pretty well last year getting some of the big projects out there, but then everyone came in and tried to fit their projects in to make (the guidelines) the commission set up for itself work,” Sulka said.

Bluffton town manager Marc Orlando said he would like to see a working group of officials from each of the municipalities and county establish a prioritized list of projects that would carry regional significance by aiding economic development and transportation among other areas.

The executive committee and municipal leaders will reconvene in mid-July to nominate candidates for the six-member commission.

By state law, three of the members must be appointed by the county, and the other three by municipalities using a formula based on the latest U.S. Census population figures.

By that formula, the town of Hilton Head Island will automatically have an appointee, and the other two members will come between Bluffton, Beaufort and Port Royal. Whichever of those three municipalities doesn’t have a resident appointed would be guaranteed a spot from the three county appointments, Stewart said.

Once a list of projects is prepared, the commission must also determine how long the sales tax would last and whether the projects should be funded before they begin through borrowing, or if the tax would be a pay-as-you-go approach.

State law allows the tax to last up to eight years in two-year increments, and the tax would expire either once the projects are funded or when the set number of years ends.

County officials have estimated such a tax would likely rake in about $30 million annually.

Councilmen Brian Flewelling and Stu Rodman said they would prefer the tax cover just a few items and last for a shorter period of time, such as two or four years.

“I’ve heard from constituents that they didn’t like the idea of a big collection period,” Flewelling said. “If we can have a limited set of projects and fund them in a short period of time, we can gain a track record of trust with the people making the ultimate decision.”


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