Lexington County leaders are moving toward trying again to add a penny to the local sales tax to pay for road improvements amid recognition the idea remains a difficult sell.
County Council took the first step last week toward a referendum on the tax hike in 2020 by creating a six-person advisory panel that will propose the projects that the tax would finance.
That move fulfills a promise first made by council members in January.
More revenue is vital to ease congestion soon on many commuter roads and to make travel safer as more people make their home in the 758-square county, several of the nine council members said
“It’s all about keeping up with the growth,” Councilman Larry Brigham of Batesburg-Leesville said of making a second try to a tax hike rejected 2-to-1 in a 2014 referendum.
Lexington County’s population will double to slightly more than 500,000 by 2050, planners at the Central Midlands Council of Governments estimate. Even critics of the tax five years ago agree that road improvements are needed but are skeptical that a suitable plan will be devised.
Winning voter approval of tax hikes is “always an uphill battle, but this one faces choppy waters,” said veteran political consultant R.J. Shealy, who helped lead opposition to the sales tax in 2014.
Challenges ahead include:
- A black eye created by cost overruns, questionable spending and delays in projects paid for by a similar tax adopted in neighboring Richland County;
- Perception that the increase in state fuel taxes now underway should take care of many improvements; and
- Concern that upcoming federal tariffs on many goods will take too large a bite out of the income of many families.
But those odds aren’t deterring some council members from pushing for another effort to increase the countywide sales tax from 7 to 8 cents per dollar spent.
There is no other way to alleviate traffic headaches quickly, they say. “We need more help,” said Councilman Darrell Hudson of Lexington, whose district includes part of the Gilbert area.
A penny tax is estimated to raise about $300 million over its eight-year life, with purchases of groceries and prescription medicine exempt. If adopted, the tax can be extended at subsequent referendums.
The list of road projects that the tax would build will be developed by the advisory panel yet to be appointed — one of whom is likely to come from the largely rural western side of the county — in the coming months. That package of recommendations would go to council members for acceptance or rejection next spring, with county leaders not allowed to modify it.
Council members are making it clear that the bulk of the package must be earmarked for road improvements or they won’t agree to a referendum. “That is the only way I would ever submit it,” Councilwoman Erin Long Bergeson of Chapin said.
So far, council members haven’t set a minimum threshold for how much must be devoted to roads. The only exception likely would be selected drainage improvements, Councilman Brigham predicted. That feature is designed to appeal to Irmo neighborhoods with good roads but flood-prone sections.
This is the third time county leaders are considering the penny tax. A similar push faded last year after county leaders decided it wasn’t the right time with Lexington One and Lexington Three asking voters in the 2018 balloting to approve tax increases for new schools and classroom renovations. So far, no sign has surfaced that other schools will seek to do that in 2020.
Councilman Brigham is taking the lead in pushing for the referendum, saying it would help pave many dirt roads around Batesburg-Leesville and Gilbert that are impassable after storms. “That would be a selling point in that area,” Shealy said.
Council chairman Scott Whetstone of Swansea, who leans in favor of the referendum, is taking a low-key role on the referendum since he would seek re-election on the same ballot.
The fate of any package put on the ballot will depend on its design, Shealy said. The plan in 2014 was enmeshed in complaints that about 30 percent of it was earmarked for paths, sports fields, civic centers and parks in communities where traffic isn’t a problem but facilities for families are lacking.
“This go-round will depend on how smartly it is composed,” Shealy said. “The right plan has a chance.”
Story by Tim Flach / Posted September 10, 2019