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Election 2012: Search starts for port funds after sales tax defeat

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Hardly anyone argued against dredging the port of Georgetown during the campaign on a referendum to add an additional penny to Georgetown County’s sales tax rate.

Voters rejected the tax Tuesday, leaving county leaders to explore new ways of financing $5.5 million to start a process that could trigger additional state and federal dredging funding and reinvigorate the port’s business.

“We’ve still got to get the port dredged,” said Bill Crowther, director of the Georgetown County Economic Alliance and chairman of the Pennies for Progress organization that promoted the additional 1-cent sales tax. Port dredging was the top priority on a list that included roads, libraries, fire stations and recreational facilities across the county.

The Georgetown County proposal would have yielded enough money over eight years to finance nearly $40 million in capital improvements. While there was support for individual projects, particularly a larger library on the Waccamaw Neck, voters were not willing to eliminate county impact fees on new construction and pay the bills for capital improvements themselves. Local travel industry officials were against adding an additional sales tax for vacationers, fearing growing competition for travel dollars. The Pawleys Island Civic Association was the largest contributor to the Stop the Tax Hike Committee.

Charlie Luquire, chairman of that committee, says it’s time to move forward on the port and find out if it’s economically viable.

“We’re pleased with the fact that the sales tax failed as it was constructed,” he said. “ We’re optimistic as to the port project and getting our local economy moving at a good pace. Our community has many assets. With wise use, good results will come.”

The Georgetown Port Task Force was scheduled to meet today to discuss options.

County Council members say dredging can go forward if the county shifts the priorities in the current capital improvement plan. “Back off on paving roads, push parks projects back,” said Council Member Ron Charlton, who was unopposed for re-election this year. “I think we can come up with the $5.5 million.”

Charlton opposed the sales tax. So did Council Member Bob Anderson. But they favor the port project.

“We will do what needs to be done,” Anderson said. “We’ll re-allocate things.”

He said it wasn’t until the last couple of weeks that he became convinced that the dredging will pay off. “We’ll try to make this happen because it’s important to the economic development of the county,” Anderson said.

Sel Hemingway, the county administrator, said some capital improvement projects are done with a combination of funds, and he will inform members of County Council about resulting complications before they make a decision.

“We’ll just have to make sure we look at projects without any restrictions on revenues,” Hemingway said.

Shipping at Georgetown has been limited because silt has made the channel as shallow as 19 feet in places. Regular maintenance that kept the channel through Winyah Bay at least 25 feet deep has been stopped because the port failed to meet minimum tonnage requirements as Georgetown Steel halted production and then resumed.

In a bit of seemingly fortuitous timing, a cement barge ran aground last week in a shallow point just off Morgan Park, illustrating the need for dredging, tax proponents said. A tug was able to free the barge loaded with cement bound for New England. Without dredging the channel to its recommended 27 feet, port advocates say, business at Georgetown will not continue to grow.

Byron Miller, vice president of marketing for the State Ports Authority, said shipping through Georgetown increased from 277,000 tons to nearly 600,000 in the past year. A shallow-draft ship carrying steel billets for a manufacturer on Conway is due at the port this month. It’s the first new business in a decade.

Miller said CSX railroad has made $500,000 in improvements at the port in preparation for growth.

Georgetown Mayor Jack Scoville, a former member of the State Ports Authority board, said dredging could be worth up to 4,000 new jobs for the county.

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