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Half-Cent Sales Tax - An uncertain direction

Cause for Concern
Warwick Jones, Editor

There is no doubt that County Council and the Cities spent a lot of time convincing voters of the need for the half-cent sales tax. Observing County Council meetings over the last few weeks it is becoming obvious that Council should have spent more time dealing with how the tax was spent. There is cause for concern.

It is worthwhile recounting the intense effort made by the Cities and County Council to persuade citizens to vote for the tax in the referendum in 2002. It was aided by the Post & Courier which made little attempt to present an alternative view. The Court's decision to nullify the referendum result because of wording led to a course of vilification of those that opposed the tax. The referendum in 2004 was approved handsomely, again with the strong support of the County Council, the Cities and the Post & Courier. But in our opinion, its passage reflected two important factors -

• The question was a simple yes or no for the tax with no opportunity for voters to register their approval or disapproval for spending on each of Transportation, CARTA and Greenbelts.
• The decision of Council to form citizen committees to provide oversight on spending on Transportation and Greenbelts, called the Transportation Advisory Board and the Greenbelts Advisory Board.

Infrastructure spending was paramount for most in favor of tax
There were many critics of the sales tax, some of whom claimed that the need for roads was paramount for many voters. Many of these citizens would have voted against an allocation for CARTA and perhaps Greenbelts but because of the desperate need for roads and infrastructure, voted for the tax regardless of the inclusion of CARTA and Greenbelts. The wording of the referendum, and other things, prompted Council member Joey Douan to initiate a suit to stop the tax and this suit is still pending. Then there were the other critics such as the SC Coastal Conservation League who described the tax as the creation of a "slush fund" for Council. In other words, Council would be getting its hands on a large amount of money for much of which there were no defined projects. There was the fear that with these funds flowing into its coffers, Council would be unable to restrain itself and spending could turn wanton. To overcome this fear, the Council agreed to create citizen oversight committees. The members of the committees would be elected differently from most bodies. Each member of the committees would be chosen by one County Council member and with Cities each being able to choose members. With members elected this way, it would be difficult, though not impossible, for any bloc on Council, say Democrat or Republican, to stack the Committee. Let's say members were voted on to the Committee by majority voting of County Council members, it is possible that all the Committee members would be from one party's slate. (For the record, it is our observation that voting on Council to date has been along non-partisan lines for which we are very pleased. But this may not always be the case.)

County plans to use $1million of tax to finance Public Works
Let's look at what is happening. Over the last 2 weeks, the Finance Committee of the County Council has been deliberating over the sales tax and the amount that can be used to finance Public Works in Fiscal 2006. The Public Works budget for 2006 is over $10 million and according to Joe Dawson, the County Attorney, it would be legal for the County to finance a major part of this with sales tax proceeds. After all, the sales tax was to finance transportation. Roads, drainage and bridges according to Mr. Dawson fall into this category. The problem lies in the fact that each year, the County has been spending on roads and drainage and this has been financed by property taxes and other revenue.

On the face of it, it seems logical that these items should be financed by the sales tax. But consider this. If all of these Public Works were financed by the sales tax proceeds, there would now be the best part of $10 million available for the General Fund for spending on just about anything the Council wants. It seems to us that nobody thought to address the question as to what level of spending should continue be financed in Public Works from traditional sources. And the question can be posed also for the Cities of the County for that matter. If the County can finance much of its Public Works from the sales tax, why can't the Cities? We don't know what Public Works budgets might be for each of the Cities in the County or the percentage that seemingly might qualify for financing from the sales tax. But is its probably double the estimated $9 million say for the County. In an extreme situation, it would seem that the major part of the sales tax directed to Transportation could be absorbed by the County and Cities with only a small proportion of the Transportation allocation left for major projects. And it is our view that voters had large projects in mind when they voted for the tax - not road maintenance or small projects.

Many Council members expressed concern
Many council members had concern about drawing on the sales tax to finance much of the Public Works spending. It seems from comments made by Mr. Roland Windham, the County Administrator, and Council Chairman Stavrinakis, that some of the mayors had a problem with the diversion of funds as well. In consequence, the Finance Committee decided to draw only $1 million in Fiscal 2006 to finance its Public Works. These funds will be directed to about 11 small road projects. But what it will be in 2007 will probably depend on the reaction of the citizens of the County as to what is proposed. We think that the diversion is probably legal but we doubt that many citizens will go along with a major diversion of funds. But a diversion of any amount will be an adverse signal for some. And we also ask, where is the Transportation Advisory Board in all of this. Is it not required to give an opinion? It seems that it is just being taken for granted.

Conservation Bank creates issues as well
Which brings us to the Conservation Bank that is being proposed by Council member Bostic. The proposal for a Conservation Bank was considered by the Finance Committee two weeks ago and it voted to recommend that it be sent to the Greenbelt Advisory Board for consideration. It comes before Council tomorrow night with an endorsement in the meantime by the Post & Courier in an editorial yesterday. We have written about this before and readers should view our note published on April 29. In principle, we have nothing against a Conservation Bank, just this one. It flies in the face of what was promised to voters at the time of the sales tax referendum. It ignores the Greenbelt Advisory Board and the Parks and Recreation Department, both of which have defined roles in the choice of Greenbelts. Much of their roles will be duplicated. The role that the proposed Bank can play in funding can also be played by the already existing South Carolina Conservation Bank. Council member Bostic plans to impose another layer on the system with an ability to spend up to $500,000 a project without Council or Advisory Board approval. He also wants a board that is chosen by a majority vote of Council and composed of "experts".

Board could be controlled by Council
It is the last two facts that are concerning. As we have already indicated, the choice of members of the Greenbelt Advisory Board was by each Council member choosing a member. Council member Bostic would have the board of the Bank appointed by the majority vote of Council. Doesn't this now become a way for a bloc of Council members to control the membership of the Bank - just the sort of thing that the creation of the Advisory Board was designed to prevent. And the Bank board is to be composed of so-called "experts". We find the definition of "experts" too narrow and possibly self-defeating. Who says a well-managed Conservation Bank board needs an accountant, a lawyer, a real estate agent etc.? The board should consist of people who know what is expected of them, who can make reasoned judgments and with integrity. It is the latter that is of most concern of citizens. Expert advice can be provided by staff of the Council or purchased from competent parties. Board members need to know how to act on it. Was it William Buckley who said that he would rather be governed by the first 100 persons in the New York telephone book than the board of Harvard University? We think this view has some application to the Board of the proposed Bank

Are the Advisory Boards being marginalised?
The first meeting of the Greenbelt and Transportation Advisory Boards are to be held this Wednesday and Thursday respectively. We don't like the signs emerging from Council about the tardiness in engaging these Committees to play the role that was proposed for them. We think that citizens should be concerned for it seems to us the roles of these Boards could be marginalized.

Note. This writer is a member of the Greenbelt Advisory Board.

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