Council plans review of capital sales tax as polling in doubt
As a county commission sorts through hundreds of millions of dollars worth of capital projects proposed for funding through a penny sales tax, it has come up short by $14,000 needed to gauge public support. Georgetown County Council is expected to debate Tuesday whether to continue with the sales tax plan.
“If they don’t give us the tools to work with to come up with an informed decision, why are we spending all this time working on it?” commission member Hank Tiller said at a meeting last week. “It just really baffles me.”
The commission was appointed by County Council to create a list of capital improvements to place before voters in a November referendum that would impose a 1-cent local sales tax. Voters passed a similar measure in 2014. That tax expired a year ago.
Commission members, who have met online, agreed to hire a firm to poll voters about the types of projects they would support. State law defines seven broad categories that are eligible for funding: roads, government facilities, cultural facilities, water and sewer projects, stormwater and flood control, beach projects and dredging.
Bill Tomes, a consultant working with the commission, proposed a phone poll that would include some of the over 100 projects proposed for the sales tax as examples of the larger categories.
“At this time, we don’t have approval to go forward with the survey,” Ray Funnye, the county Public Services director, told the commission this week.
The commission members expected County Council to approve funds for the survey last month. The issue didn’t come up.
“We wanted to see that they’re getting their project list down to a manageable size,” Council Chairman John Thomas said last week. “We’re just concerned that they have half a billion dollars worth of projects. It’s not a list that voters would vote for right now.”
There will be “some serious discussion” about the sales tax when the council meets Tuesday, Thomas said.
Council Member Steve Goggans agreed there are problems with the project list, which totaled at least $459 million. Some projects, such as a bridge to Sandy Island, didn’t contain cost estimates.
The sales tax was projected to raise about $90 million over eight years. That could be reduced as the coronavirus pandemic weighs on the economy.
But Goggans said, “I think it’s premature to pull the plug.”
“Now that we’ve appointed the commission, there’s value in letting them do their work and taking it on through. And giving them the tools to do the work, including the survey,” he added.
Council Member Raymond Newton thinks there may be value in polling voters and allowing the commission to continue to review projects. He isn’t sure about the referendum.
“It’s not a good environment to be raising taxes,” he said. “By the time November rolls around and it’s time for an election, I don’t think the residents are going to stomach a tax increase.”
The timetable to put a referendum on the ballot requires the commission to deliver the project list to County Council in time for a vote on June 23. Council cannot amend the list.
Even if council approves money to poll voters next week, Tomes said it would be hard to get the results in time for the commission to use them. Online surveys and social media polls could help, but he called the phone poll “the gold standard in collecting information.”
The commission is also hindered by its inability to hold public meetings during the pandemic.
“We will have a lack of information that we have to account for in some way some how,” commission member Nate Fata said.
The commission will meet again today to continue its review of projects.
Last week, the commission cut $83.6 million in projects from the list. Most of the cuts were proposed by Fata, including beach renourishment at Litchfield ($13.9 million) and Garden City ($7.8 million), the purchase of the McKenzie Beach property ($15 million) and a new beach access on Pawleys Island ($1.5 million).
Commission member Craig Lieberman cut a parking garage on the Murrells Inlet waterfront ($9.5 million). “Though likely necessary over time,” he said it was too expensive.
Commission member Kenny Johnson cut a $30 million request for rural internet service, saying there are already efforts under way to address that need.
“The high ticket items are going to get the most scrutiny,” Fata said after the meeting. He added that some proposals are short on information and the commission has a tight deadline.
“What are the projects with enough meat on them that you are comfortable with proposing them,” he said.
Leiberman also questioned a $15 million dredging project in Murrells Inlet, pointing out that some of the canals that are included serve private homes. He said restaurants along the Marshwalk have agreed to share some of the dredging cost and he thinks homeowners should do the same.
Funnye said all the areas were included because the county is considering offshore disposal of the dredged material, estimated at 740,000 cubic yards. “It really makes sense to do that” to achieve economies of scale, he explained.
“I just think we can define the scope a little better,” Lieberman said.
The commission reduced the total cost of the projects to $335.1 million.
“Four years ago, when they did the polling it was not projects, it was categories,” Thomas said. “They’re not in a position to describe their projects in any succinct categories.”