New sales-tax referendum taking shape for Beaufort County’s 2016 ballot


BY ZACH MURDOCK, zmurdock@islandpacket.com, July 29, 2015

Beaufort County leaders hope the third time is the charm to craft a sales-tax referendum they feel comfortable putting before voters after three years of circular discussions and no final proposal.

A similar measure to raise the sales tax 1 percent for capital projects was shot down last summer by County Council before it went to the ballot, but leaders hope a new effort for the November 2016 election will be different.

Where last year’s idea began with a blank slate, County Council leaders and area mayors agreed at a special meeting Wednesday that an upcoming proposal should focus on public infrastructure needs, such as road and parking improvements.

“Put something on there that people can touch and feel,” Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka said. “Public safety is huge, and the infrastructure, that’s something they can see. … They’ll feel good about paying their penny to go to that.”

Last year’s proposal didn’t stick to just infrastructure projects, which irked County Council members who felt the outcome was a “wish list.”

The final proposal quashed by the council would have created a 1 percent sales tax to fund 21 capital-improvement projects, with a total price tag of more than $221 million. The high-profile and much-scrutinized projects included the controversial shifting of a section of Bluffton Parkway, buying the former Port of Port Royal, and building sports facilities and an arena for the University of South Carolina Beaufort.

Such a sweeping list and massive expense — almost the maximum levy allowed under state law — cannot happen again, council members and the mayors said.
Instead, leaders hope a new commission might follow their recommendation to consider a 1 percent sales tax over four years. That would raise about $120 million, deputy county administrator Josh Gruber said.

The commission, which has not yet been formally appointed, could then use that framework to narrow a list to the most important dozen or so projects in all corners of the county, leaders said. Suggestions from county and municipal administrators included improvements to U.S. 278 at Windmill Harbour, frontage roads in greater Bluffton, a parking garage in downtown Beaufort, repaving in Port Royal, and initial designs for expanded bridges to Hilton Head Island.

“We want to give some guidance to the commission. … We don’t want to end up where we did the last time, where we just disavow what they did,” county councilman Jerry Stewart said.
That experience last summer frustrated county, municipal and commission leaders and left a blemish on the county’s ability to create a succinct proposal, officials said.

There is also still disagreement among municipal leaders and County Council about what type of sales tax to implement.

Beaufort, Bluffton and Port Royal have repeatedly voted in favor of a “local option sales tax,” which splits the revenue between property-tax relief for residents and a smaller pot of money local governments can use as they see fit. The municipalities see it as a stabilizing force for their already stretched budgets, Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling said.

Beaufort is among only 14 South Carolina counties that has not approved a type of local option sales tax, county councilwoman Alice Howard said.

County and Hilton Head officials, however, fear the local option won’t raise enough to devote to larger projects.

The mayors will meet in the coming weeks to discuss the local option sales tax, and Stewart said leaders will have to decide later this year which one of the two types of sales taxes to pursue for November 2016 — not both.

But beyond improving the process for a possible referendum, leaders will have to win over the public, and that will take better communication and less squabbling among elected officials, Keyserling said.

“There’s a bigger issue of how we gain the public trust, which, in my personal view, is not there to pass a damn thing today,” Keyserling said. “I don’t think if we put motherhood and apple pie on a referendum it would pass.

“I hate to say it, but I think going through a lot of this is a waste of time, if we don’t address that fundamental issue (of trust).”

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