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Sales tax increase - Forum held by League of Women Voters

Warwick Jones, Editor

The sales tax referendum was the subject to a two hour forum last night, hosted by the League of Women Voters and the Low Country Chapter of the American Society of Public Administration. Little new came out of the forum but the debate covered a wide range of issues and provided a full airing. There were 8 panelists, each of whom spoke for about 3 minutes. The three panelists for the tax were Leon Stavrinakis, Charleston County Councilman; Christine Nelson, CARTA Transit Administrator; and Brian Moody, Campaign Chair for Citizens for Community Improvement.

Speaking for the tax
Mr. Stavrinakis was the most powerful speaker in favor of the tax. He stated that few persons questioned the need for the projects that would be financed by the sales tax. The issue was whether the sales tax would pass. And if it didn't pass, what would happen? He pointed to the limited financing options available to local government and the likelihood of an increase in property taxes. He suggested that CARTA may not be funded at all. Ms. Nelson followed and understandably spoke largely of CARTA. She noted the large cut backs in service, defended the management, despaired the lack of alternative funding and spoke of the exciting future if funding became available through the sales tax. Mr. Moody noted that the nature of the opposition to the increased tax had changed. In 2002 the issue was the need for funding. In 2004, the focus had moved to accountability. He also noted that Charleston was becoming congested with traffic and was described in one survey as the second most congested city in the USA.

And against the tax
Mr. Henry Fishburne, City Council member opened the forum for those opposed to the tax. He stated that he was not opposed to the broad objectives of the tax i.e. he was not against more roads, green space, or a public transit system. But he was concerned about trust - of trusting the politicians that would be spending these funds. History did not give him great confidence. He said that the wording and other provisions put in place for the 2004 ballot were much better than those for 2002. But they still had not gone far enough. Why hadn't the County listened to the Coastal Conservation League and others, and met their requests, particularly in relation to accountability? Why were there not 3 separate questions in the referendum - on Mass Transit, Infrastructure, and Green space? And why did we need to take it to 25 years? Why not a more limited time horizon and more defined projects? Mr. Eric Meyer of the SC Coastal Conservation League in essence spoke of the same things as Mr. Fishburne and noted the efforts made by the League to remove the issues. Mr. Robert George, City Council member, noted the lack of a regional growth plan and questioned as to what would happen if the sales tax passed with out such a plan? He was critical of present planning and opined that the County should join with surrounding counties to develop a regional plan. He also called for an autonomous body to define transport and infrastructure projects. New leadership of CARTA was also necessary, he said.

And a background
The two remaining panelists were neutral in a sense. Mr. Glennith Johnson was from SC Department of Transport. He spoke of the limited funds available for CARTA and roads. Funding came largely from the gasoline tax and via the Federal Government. The pool of funds for mass transit amounted to only $6 million a year and had to be split amongst 17 providers. Effectively he was saying that Charleston County was on its own when it came to financing CARTA and many of its roads! Professor Al Parrish of Charleston Southern University produced figures that showed a net economic benefit from the tax of $22 million to the region. He said that it would also add 314 jobs. He also went on to say rejection of the tax would cause large job losses and a drop in personal income of $29.5 million.

Voters are being blackmailed on issue of CARTA
After the panelists, the forum was opened to the "front row" panel and questions from the audience. CARTA was taken up by the first speaker. She noted the importance of mass transit to many people, particularly "indigenes". She spoke with disgust as to the way the County Council had used the issue of CARTA to push through a sales tax to raise $1.3 billion of which CARTA was only a modest beneficiary. In other words, people were being "blackmailed" to support the tax. Mr. Stavrinakis again pointed to the lack of alternative funding and Mr. Meyer noted that CARTA was nowhere mentioned in the sales tax question on the ballot. Mr. George spoke again of the need to shake up CARTA and come up with new ideas such as Park and Ride. He also noted the difficulties of a mass transit system in Charleston with its low densities of population per square mile when all the waterways are taken into consideration. The bridges over the water way were also points of congestion. He also took issue with Charleston being the second most traffic congested city in the US and cited a study showed it to be well down the list.

Do we need the tax for green space?
On the issue of green space, Mr. Fishburne opined that it was possible that Charleston could achieve its green space objectives without resorting to a sales tax. He noted what has been achieved such in the Ace Basin by using federal funds and tax breaks. Others noted that a move on green space was imperative. Growth was going to come to Charleston regardless and the only way to preserve green space was to buy or acquire covenants as soon as possible.

Economic benefit small
The projections of Professor Parish were also questioned. If a half cent sales tax was so beneficial, why not a 10 cent sales tax? He confessed that such as increase would indeed be detrimental to the economy. His projections were an estimate of the benefit from better traffic flow and infrastructure largely. He noted that his projections of the benefit were really miniscule. The $22 million gain he projected had to be set against the $17 billion present Gross National Product of the region. The 315 employment gain had to be set against the 300,000 persons presently employed.

Columbia will be no help
Mr. Stavrinakis ended the meeting by saying that the Sales tax referendum was not perfect and there will be problems. But there were to be reviews and changes, and plans will be reviewed every 5 years. The local community has needs and Columbia has said that it can not raise more funds for local needs. So we have to deal with it!