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Sales tax: County Council puts a penny on the November ballot

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Let the argument over a proposed 1-cent sales tax in Georgetown County begin.

Georgetown County Council members voted 5-2 Tuesday to put a referendum on the ballot Nov. 6 for the additional penny-per-dollar sales tax to fund nearly $40 million in capital improvement projects such as dredging the shipping channel in Winyah Bay and providing a spoils site for the dredging of Murrells Inlet along with libraries, paved roads, fire stations and recreation facilities.

Arguments prior to Tuesday’s council vote had been scatter shot — some argued for voting, others against spending. Now Georgetown County residents are on the same page: for or against a capital spending proposal funded by a sales tax.

“This is a consumption tax,” said Vikky Ferris of Georgetown. “I like that, but I don’t think it’s necessary. What we have in this proposal is not balanced correctly. I assume everyone in this room is for dredging the port. It would attract new industry in the county. I am hoping this council will put jobs in the forefront and make dredging the port No. 1, saying we will do that no matter what.”

Charlie Luquire of the Pawleys Island area said the county has other means of paying for dredging besides implementing a new sales tax. “The county has a lot of money in the bank,” he said. “The total balance is above $72 million, according to the latest information. The county is about to borrow $26 million to spend on projects in the Capital Improvement Plan. While the county finances are complex, it would appear that there are many options to funding our share of dredging cost.”

Eileen Johnson of Georgetown told members of the council that they worked for the people, not County Administrator Sel Hemingway.

“This 1-cent sales tax will not get us jobs,” she said. “You are spending money recklessly, putting parks and recreation on top of everything. That’s not why we put you up there. You answer to us. There’s nobody in charge here. It’s apparent that you rubber stamp Mr. Hemingway’s wishes. I am not in favor of the 1-cent sales tax.”

Johnson said the county needs to do more to attract jobs. “We need the youth of this county to stay here,” she said. “You’ve done nothing to keep jobs. I don’t trust you with another bit of money. You are only creating debt.”

Dick Richards of Murrells Inlet asked if an additional sales tax was a good idea right now. “I don’t believe County Council is listening deeply to those who object to this idea,” he said. “Every district has people like myself on Social Security, $1,400 a month. Is this tax going to make a difference to me? Yes, it will. I do not see my future prospects comforting.”

Jeepy Ford of DeBordieu called the proposed spending plan “a typical smoke-and-mirrors game, cherry-picking projects to persuade people to vote in favor of it.”

Ted Hiley of the Pawleys Island area asked council members to approve a vote and let the chips fall where they may. “I have confidence in the citizens of this county,” he said.

Michael Quinn, a teacher and coach at Waccamaw High, also asked council to let people vote. “People of this county are resilient, prudent,” he said. “Trust residents to make the decision.” Others, including Sean Glenn, Marvin Neal, Harold Jean Brown, Alan Gramet, Randolph Ford, Linda Ketron, Virginia Welch, Paul Wolf, Karen Yaniga and Kim Fox, also favored a vote.

Tom Winslow of Georgetown, a Republican candidate for S.C. House District 103, said he opposed a public vote on the tax. “By pushing it to the people,” he told members of the council, “you are not doing your job.”

Winslow said he agreed with a resolution passed by the Georgetown Republican Party last week that favored dredging the channel because it would create jobs. County Republicans voted 13-1 to oppose the 1-cent sales tax proposal and add the local matching funds for dredging, estimated at $5.5 million, to the existing Capital Improvement Plan, according to a statement from Chairman Jim Jerow.

Georgetown County Democrats voted Monday to endorse a vote on the sales tax, according to chairman Nancy Kolman.

Anita Lampley of Murrells Inlet told members of the council that she feared voters wouldn’t understand the issue. “How will it be advertised,” she asked, “and will the public understand what the money will be spent for? This is not a good time for all this spending to take place. Educating the public is the biggest obstacle.”

Bill Crowther, director of the Georgetown County Economic Development Alliance, said he supported the 1-cent sales tax initiative with dredging the port’s channel as its priority. “We are working diligently to secure funding for this,” he said. “The main thing is the public has a right to make a decision. It’s a very important issue.”

Crowther added that he favored removing impact fees from new construction, the method being used to fund capital improvement projects now.

Tim Tilley, chairman of a dredging task force, said the county would be paying only 16 percent of the cost of dredging the channel with the remaining funding coming from other sources. He favored the pay-as-you-go element of collecting an additional 1-cent sales tax with commuters and tourists contributing to the local economy. “The public has the right to choose,” he said. “A consumption tax, or Fair Tax, has many advantages. It provides a simple way for local citizens to finance projects, and it expires. The community should have the chance to vote.”

The 1-cent sales tax would collect an estimated $44 million over its lifespan of eight years.

County Council members Austin Beard, Jerry Oakley, Lillie Jean Johnson, Leona Myers-Miller and Chairman Johnny Morant voted in favor of allowing the sales tax referendum. Bob Anderson and Ron Charlton voted against it.

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