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Sales tax: Campaigns spread the word – pro and con – about referendum

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

The battle lines over a proposed 1-cent sales tax increase for capital projects in Georgetown County are being drawn.

An opposition group, Stop The Tax Hike Committee, has erected a billboard featuring an emphatic “NO” on Highway 17 just south of Litchfield.

“We are trying to get the message out to vote no,” said Charlie Luquire, committee chairman, at Saturday’s opening of Georgetown County Republican Party headquarters at Pawleys Plaza. “We’ve got 25 people participating in our effort. Hopefully, they can convince their friends.”

Members of a group promoting the tax, Pennies for Progress, hope that an announcement planned Friday morning of a new customer at the Port of Georgetown will convince people to vote for the additional tax since its top priority is to begin dredging the shipping channel with the first $5.5 million collected.

New port business, said Pennies for Progress organizer Bill Crowther, will raise public perception of the issue with just a month before the vote. “Absolutely, it does,” Crowther said. “There’s a real ship, not a barge, docking at the Port of Georgetown. We are trying to call attention to the port every opportunity we can.”

Crowther, a member of the Economic Development Alliance, said the port’s tonnage dropped to a low of 109,000 tons before rebounding to 600,000. It needs to reach a million tons per year to receive federal funds for dredging. The first money from the sales tax will be used to work on an area that has silted in to just 19 feet deep. Once the channel is restored to 25 feet, he said, tonnage will improve and funding would be available to deepen it to 27 feet.

“We’ll be open for business again,” Crowther said.

Opponents of the tax say Georgetown County should find $5.5 million from other sources to dredge the harbor without initiating a sales tax that will bring in an estimated $44 million over eight years for a variety of other uses, including fire stations, recreation facilities, roads and libraries along with a spoils site for dredging at Murrells Inlet.

“People I talk to,” said Paige Sawyer, a member of Georgetown City Council, “are opposed to a $40 million tax increase. They say the services provided with the current taxes and fees are enough. We don’t need an additional tax.”

Both sides are racing to spread the word.

Crowther said Pennies for Progress took its campaign to Folly Grove this week and was well received. Volunteers will be at homecoming festivities at Waccamaw High next week.

A large number of Stop the Tax Hike Committee supporters, wearing stickers prominently featuring the figure $40 million, attended a rally and dinner for Tammy Avant, clerk of court petition candidate, at Pleasant Hill given by her uncle, R.L. Port. Some were unfamiliar with the upcoming vote on the additional penny sales tax.

“When the funds are going to education,” said Dale Owens, a Pleasant Hill grocer, “people know how to vote. I’m not in favor of any tax because there’s so much waste in government.”

Patty Johnson of Georgetown said she was in favor of the sales tax because everybody would contribute.

Stephen Chmil, an opponent of the sales tax from the Willbrook community in the Pawleys Island area, said he had just seen the county’s new tennis facility in Litchfield. “It looked like Forest Hills,” he said.

Randy Hollister, a member of the Economic Development Alliance from Pawleys Island, said he is interested to hear both sides. His biggest concern is the length of the collection period, eight years. “That’s too long,” he said. “I would have preferred two to four years.”

Luquire said the average voter is not going to wade through a large amount of material.

“An uninformed voter is a dangerous voter,” he said. “I hope people will dig into it and not just guess. I still don’t understand as much as I need to know about it, but I know it’s not a good deal for the taxpayer.”

Georgetown County Council will have first reading Tuesday on a resolution calling for an end to impact fees if voters approve the additional 1-cent sales tax.

Impact fees in 2011-12 generated a total of $724,666 with $591,736 coming from residential building and $132,930 coming from commercial building.

Ending impact fees was one of the reasons the Chamber of Commerce listed for favoring implementation of the sales tax.

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