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Sales tax: Voters approve an extra penny for port

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Waccamaw Neck voters changed their minds about an additional one-cent sales tax for Georgetown County and provided the margin that carried it to a comfortable approval Tuesday.

Voters in Pawleys Island and Murrells Inlet led the rejection of an eight-year, $40 million county sales tax referendum two years ago, but the scaled-down proposal won approval in all nine of the area’s precincts with a margin of nearly 2,000 votes this time. The tax passed countywide by 3,592 votes — 11,710 to 8,118.

Dredging of the port of Georgetown and the potential of job creation was the feature promoted as most beneficial to the county if the tax was approved. The county’s share of the port cost is $6 million with state and federal government and State Ports Authority money making up the remaining $27.5 million cost. Murrells Inlet voters were attracted by including $10.3 million in spending to prepare a spoils site and dredge the inlet channel. Keeping the inlet as a navigable body of water would help maintain the value of businesses and houses in the community, tax proponents said, and sand near the jetties would be used to renourish Garden City Beach.

Along with the two dredging projects, the referendum included $8.9 million for road paving, $1.5 million for rural fire stations and $1.5 million for an Andrews fire and police complex for a total of $28.2 million to be collected beginning next spring and ending in four years. With a new $750,000 Big Dam fire station in plans for their community, Potato Bed Ferry precinct voters favored the referendum by a 166-89 vote. Andrews voters approved the referendum, 326-222.

“I’m excited that it passed,” said county economic development director Brian Tucker. “From an economic development standpoint, it says a couple of things. No. 1, it shows a supportive community, and we often overlook that component. When I’m recruiting and bringing in industry, those folks want to know that when they spend their money here the community is equally invested in what happens. The degree it passed helps me tell the story about Georgetown County.”

Tucker said there are very few communities in the nation with a port, giving the county a competitive edge. “Having a functional port offsets some of our obstacles when it comes to transportation,” he said. “Everybody understands we are a long way from an interstate and Highway 521 is not four-laned. Having the port dredged to 27 feet helps us recruit companies that need that specific transportation with rail access. It helps me tremendously when it comes to recruiting.”

Eileen Johnson, an opponent of the sales tax, said the promise of jobs coming if the port is dredged is pie in the sky. “They think this port is some kind of miracle cure, which it is not,” she said. “All of a sudden because we throw some dirt out of the river our lives are going to get better? That’s not the case. We might possibly somewhere down the road get some relief, but the cost of doing that is so astronomical that the numbers don’t work.”

Johnson said the port failed to grow when it was dredged years ago. “It might get a few stevedores some work and a few little companies might come,” she said, “but we’ve got an impact fee. It’s a deterrent, a green light and a red light. We’re stagnant now. The port is not going to change that.”

Johnson said she started campaigning against the tax too late to have an impact. She said the county used the Murrells Inlet dredging as a “blatant vote-getter” and the organized opposition from two years ago disappeared. “One of the key reasons that people voted,” she said, “was that they were uninformed. I was just one of the few that happened to dig out some information. It sounds good on the surface, but I don’t think they understand what’s going on underneath such as our debt and where money has been spent. They voted without thinking.”

Johnson said she will form a watchdog group to track the spending of the additional one-cent tax proceeds. “We will be making sure of what’s being spent,” she said.

Bill Hills of Murrells Inlet, a member of the county committee appointed to approve the projects, said voters will be watching how County Council manages the money for another reason. “Whether we will have another sales tax in the future to accomplish things we need is up to them and how they handle the implementation of this,” he said. “I look forward to Georgetown County progressing as it should.”

County Administrator Sel Hemingway said he expects the county to get the projects completed in the most cost-effective and timely manner possible. John Thomas, who was unopposed in County Council District 1 and will take office in January, said he would favor borrowing the money to get the projects started. He said he floated the idea of another county strategic planning process to update the “Visions” plan and found that people were worried about the county’s debt. “That’s something a lot of people don’t understand about the Capital Improvement Program,” Thomas said. “What I heard was that the county is $100 million in debt. Why would I approve a new sales tax? What they don’t realize is that’s part of the plan: to implement the projects up front with interest rates as low as they are and pay it back with proceeds from the revenue stream. That’s the same thing we should do with the penny tax: borrow money up front to get the projects done. I think the money the county gets is well taken care of, and I hope to continue that.”

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