UPDATE: Tuesday night, Council approved putting the penny tax referendum on the November ballot. Continue reading our original story below.
Lexington County’s Penny for Progress was expected to receive its final blessing from Lexington County Council at its May 28 meeting.
With Council’s approval, the proposed penny sales tax designed to fund 92 projects throughout Lexington County at a cost of $361 million will go before voters Nov. 4.
But will the referendum win approval from Lexington County voters?
Lexington has had a reputation as a conservative, anti-tax county that doesn’t like government spending. But today it has a different population because of growth in recent years. That growth is a major factor in the need for the tax, proponents say.
Cayce Mayor Elise Partin says she hears a “mix” of opinions about the proposed tax and is unable to predict whether or not it will pass.
She is pleased that the proposal includes some projects for Cayce that include stormwater improvements and flood relief measures.
Lexington County Councilman Frank Townsend says the response in Batesburg-Leesville is also mixed, as are his own feelings about the tax.
Townsend says he expects County Council to vote in favor of the package, and he will likely vote for it himself to assure that his area gets some of the needed projects on the list.
But he’s not happy with all of the projects.
“They could have left off some of the parks and river walks,” he says.
Irmo Mayor Hardy King predicts the tax will fail at the polls, given Lexington County’s conservative makeup.
“I give this a 50-50 chance of passing,” he says, “and in Lexington County that probably means it will fail. All it takes is for voters to find a problem with some of the projects on the list.”
If it was Richland County, King says, it would likely pass.
However, Richland County’s own penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike failed once at the polls, in 2010, before winning approval in 2012.
Opposition groups are already organizing a campaign to defeat the tax, which they say includes unnecessary projects. They also complain about the upfront expenditure of $450,000 in government funds to the advisory panel, Alliance Consulting Engineers, whether the tax passes or not.
Lexington County Citizens Watch, headed by political activist Talbert Black, has been attempting to dissuade Council from approving the ballot question. There were also reports that political consultant R. J. Shealy was preparing to mount a campaign against the penny.
Speaking at a Penny for Progress Commission meeting, Mike Green of West Columbia sounded off about a proposed $16.7 million water park for the Town of Springdale, saying “it is not the purpose of government to build water parks.”
But most of the projects are infrastructure improvements: road paving, widening sidewalks wastewater and stormwater projects spread all across Lexington County.
There are some non-infrastructure projects that will change the activity landscape of Lexington County.
A $12 million soccer and volleyball complex is planned for Highway 321 near the State Farmers Market. Chapin would get a $4 million community center; Lexington would get a $5 million baseball complex. Springdale would get an $8.8 million municipal complex. And there’s the $7.4 million walking path along the Saluda River.
Lexington County Administrator Joe Mergo calls the tax “a tool in the toolbox.”
He says it’s a way to address important needs in the county that needs addressing, such as the 635 miles of dirt roads that need paving.
If the county attempted to do that on its own with its current revenue resources, Mergo said it would take 135 years to complete.
Similar projects are now underway in other South Carolina counties, such as York, where you can drive by and see signs saying “your penny at work.”
The County Council is not acting as an advocate for the penny, but offering it to voters as a choice, Mergo says.
Citizens go to the polls and “they can say this is something they want or something they don’t want.”
The pending vote may help Lexington County avoid any increases in property taxes. Lexington County Council members have indicated they may want to avoid hitting residents with any new property tax at a time when the sales tax could go up.
Voters will see two lists, a high priority list of projects totaling around $268 million, and a contingency list of lower priority projects totaling $93.1 million.
On the ballot, people will see projects divided up under headings such as community improvement, roads, recreation and municipal facilities. The project’s ranking by the commission, area, brief description and cost also will be included.
The top five projects are transportation related and include realignment of Mineral Springs Road in Lexington, improvements to the S.C. Highway 23 and Pine Street intersection in Batesburg-Leesville, the S.C. Highway 60 and Carlisle Street intersection in Irmo, Columbia Avenue in Chapin, and the 12th Street Extension project.
If approved by voters countywide, the new tax hike would last eight years, but could be renewed. Groceries and prescription medicine would remain exempt from the tax.
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