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Sales tax: Committee reviews options in capital plan

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

A commission tasked with working out the details of how a proposed 1-cent capital sales tax would be spent will meet weekly until it has a handle on the best use for the funds.

The six-member group convened for the first time on Tuesday to learn more about each other and the task before them, and to come up with a plan for how to proceed. The real work will begin April 26 — the first of their weekly 5 p.m. Thursday meetings.

Commission members received a copy of the most recent version of the county’s capital improvement plan to review before the next meeting, but there was minimal discussion of projects from the plan and how they might benefit from sales tax.

County Administrator Sel Hemingway explained how the plan was affected by the recession — some projects were scaled back and others were pushed out of the first phase of work. Restoring those projects has been brought up as a possible use of the tax revenue.

There was also discussion of dredging as a possible use for funds. Dredging isn’t currently permitted by the state as a use for funds from a capital sales tax, but the county’s resident state senators, Ray Cleary and Yancey McGill, put forth a bill that would change that. The bill was being considered by the full Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday and was expected to move quickly to the Senate floor.

While dredging of Winyah Bay, which would have significant economic advantages for the county, is the most talked about dredging project in relation to the sales tax funds, dredging in Murrells Inlet is also on the table, Hemingway told the commission. The inlet is considered a recreational water body, so it lends itself to different funding sources than Winyah Bay, but at present no funding is available for either project, Hemingway said.

Of the six commission members, two are Waccamaw Neck residents and one of those, Dan Stacy, a Pawleys Island area attorney, was elected the commission’s chairman. Stacy has offices in Litchfield and Georgetown and has lived in the county since 1997.

Donald Godwin, a businessman who lives in Heritage Plantation, is the Neck’s other representative on the commission. He owns Southern Asphalt, a paving company. He is also a developer and has business interests in the areas of propane and sanitation.

Two residents of the city of Georgetown sit on the committee. George Geer Jr. is a media specialist at Andrews High School and Henry Milton is a retired longshoreman.

Finishing out the commission are Walletta Joye Thornton of Andrews and Kyle W. Daniel, who lives in the Georgetown County portion of Hemingway. Thornton is a teacher and math department chairperson for Andrews High, as well as a part-time funeral director. Daniel, who couldn’t attend the meeting due to a scheduling conflict, is the executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Georgetown County farm service.

Stacy agreed to be part of the commission, because “this is an important issue in our county right now,” he said. “For me I want to thoroughly explore the impact fee component. I think that has had a very chilling effect on our building industry.”

Impact fees were put in place in Georgetown County in 2009 and are one of several funding mechanisms included in the capital improvement plan. The county is looking at doing away with the fee if the capital projects sales tax is put in place — something that would have to be approved by the public during the November election.

If there’s a way to pass some of the cost for the plan from county residents to tourists, “it’s worth exploring,” Stacy said.

It is estimated that about a quarter of the $5.5 million a year minimum revenue the tax is expected to generate would come from tourists.

“It would be nice to have other people pay for it,” Godwin said.

Stacy is familiar with the projects that have been proposed for use of the tax funds, including dredging and a new 27,000-square-foot Waccamaw Library. But as the commission begins its work, he doesn’t have any opinions about which projects revenue from the proposed tax should fund. He needs to sit down and have a close look at the county’s capital improvement plan first.

Whatever projects end up on the list for funding, commission members and county staff agree the projects have to be sustainable, meaning there has to be a plan to pay for operations and maintenance after construction, and it has to appeal to residents of all areas of the county. If voters don’t feel they’re getting something in exchange for higher taxes, the referendum doesn’t stand a chance of being passed on Election Day.

Hemingway recalled a past school bond referendum in the county. Those who didn’t live in the immediate area where new schools were proposed didn’t support it and it failed. Twice.

When it finally passed, he said, it was because it included a package that gave every area of the county a new school.

“There was some question of if they were needed everywhere at the time, but there had to be a package to get what was needed,” he said. “I think that’s what it’s going to take here.”

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