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Sales tax: Council moves forward with referendum
By Jackie R. Broach
The decision whether to implement a 1-cent sales tax in Georgetown County to help pay for capital projects — including dredging of Winyah Bay — should be left up to the electorate rather than made by County Council, at least according to a majority of council members.
Council voted 5-2 this week to send the proposed tax to a referendum, despite urging from about a dozen people to kill the proposal. Those people lined up to state their case Tuesday.
Four people spoke in favor of putting the tax on the November ballot. There would have been more, they said, except there was a Waccamaw Library fundraiser the same night that kept many proponents from attending the council meeting. However, a number of those who didn’t attend wrote letters asking that the referendum go forward.
A new Waccamaw Library is one of 20 projects promoted as economic development tools that would receive funding from the proposed tax. The project list totals nearly $40 million. If approved the tax would be in place for eight years. The ballot question still requires another vote by council, and that is expected in August.
Sales tax opponents said this isn’t the right time to impose a tax on people who are still hurting from the recession. Some said the projects on the list are wants, not needs, and that the county should cut spending, not increase it. Others said projects are a waste of funds. They questioned who will use the recreation facilities under construction as part of the county’s current capital improvement plan. Several people mentioned pools as one item the county shouldn’t spend money on even though pools were removed from the list by the committee that drafted the sales tax plan.
A library these days is about as useful as a record store, said Robert Skotnicki, a Hagley resident.
“Everybody has Kindles and Nooks. Encyclopedia Britannica doesn’t even print books anymore. It’s all electronic,” he said.
Linda Caswell, a River Club resident, said she gathers libraries these days are mostly used for checking e-mail and surfing the Internet. “Taxpayer money shouldn’t be used for that,” she said.
Jean Cross, who heads the Friends of the Waccamaw Library’s efforts to raise money for a new branch, took exception to such statements.
“We realize these are very hard economic times, but I think we also have to realize the necessary services that will appear on this referendum,” she said. She used libraries as an example. “They’re not CD stores. They’re not places that just provide pleasure. They provide services.”
They’re a place where the unemployed can go to get help applying for jobs online and where people of all ages can learn how to use new technology. They also provide a community center where people can gather and public meetings can take place.
The meeting room at the Waccamaw Library was used by sales tax opponents to go over talking points before the council meeting.
Cross was booed by one woman in the audience as she took her seat. Those who spoke against the tax drew applause.
“We’re spending more than we make and we cannot sustain it,” Eileen Johnson, a Georgetown resident, said. She talked about the percentage of county residents who are of working age and the unemployment rate.
“As of 2009, 20 percent of people in the county were living in poverty and council wants to build parks,” she said. She pointedly asked if it was to give the unemployed a place to hang out.
She also criticized the county for hiring a tennis pro, saying the news “inflamed” her.
“We are not running a country club,” she said.
Jeepy Ford, a DeBordieu resident, said he couldn’t believe the county approved a $300-plus million capital improvement plan several years ago without putting it to a public vote. But he encouraged the council not to put the sales tax to a vote.
“Here we are again going counter to the national trend of trimming government staff. We don’t need any new taxes on the backs of the residents,” he said. “We need council to live up to the duty to their citizens and lead us from the shackles of poverty we’re being led into to fund wish list projects.”
Charlie Luquire, a Pawleys Island area resident, said the projects in the sales tax plan amount to a new capital improvement plan. “We don’t need a new capital spending plan or a new tax,” he said.
The county should further demonstrate the flexibility of the capital plan by finding a way to fit dredging for the Port of Georgetown in without a sales tax.
The port is important to the county’s economic health, he said, but most of the other projects proposed for funding are not.
Bill Hills, a Murrells Inlet resident, said the sales tax projects are worthwhile.
“Each project is one that makes the county a better place to work and live, and improves the standards of living,” he said. “I understand improved living will attract businesses.”
However, he asked council to vote no on the ordinance, saying the projects are “not quick fixes to a bad economy.” Many businesses aren’t looking to build and some economists are predicting a second dip in the recession or possibly even a depression.
“The proposals are good, but the timing is bad,” Hills said.
Marla Hamby, another Pawleys Island area resident, argued against a referendum, saying “so many people are not engaged and don’t know what’s going on.”
She also criticized the county for planning to borrow money based on projected sales tax revenue.
“I don’t want my elected officials spending money we don’t have,” she said.
Linda Ketron, a North Litchfield resident, said she favors roads, dredging, great libraries and recreation — all of which would be funded by an additional 1-cent sales tax.
“What I really want though is the chance to place my vote. I think when a self tax is about to be either imposed or chosen, it should be chosen by the population as a whole rather than its representation. The county [residents] deserve to place a vote.”
Tim Tilley, a Georgetown resident who chairs a port dredging task force for the county Economic Development Alliance, pointed out that even if the sales tax is approved, the county’s tax rate would still be lower than in surrounding counties.
“I realize it’s fashionable to oppose taxes,” he said. “It’s not a light decision for me to stand up in favor” of a sales tax. But with all the proceeds going into local projects and with the economic development impact of the projects, it makes sense.
Bill Crowther, executive director of the alliance, said the group’s members feel strongly a referendum should go forward.
“We believe this is a good thing for the county,” he said. “We’re competing with a lot of other places that have a high quality of life” in efforts to recruit new businesses.
Council Members Bob Anderson and Ron Charlton voted not to put the tax on the ballot.
Anderson initially “led the charge” to put the tax on the ballot, he said, but changed his mind at the last minute. He was initially in favor because he’s a “fair tax” advocate and he thought a sales tax would be an excellent way to replace some property tax revenue with sales tax funds. “But the fact of the matter is we were not able to get to that point,” he said.
Charlton said he came to the meeting with an open mind, and after hearing all that was said, he agreed this isn’t the time to impose a new tax.
Council Chairman Johnny Morant pointed out that council isn’t implementing the tax, but is giving the public a chance to decide.
With a motion by Anderson months ago, council committed itself to a process that would culminate in a referendum in November, said Council Vice Chairman Jerry Oakley.
“I’m a believer in doing what you said you would do,” he said. “Council should do what it said it would do and set the issue for the voters to decide in a referendum on the November ballot.”