Nobody can accuse Linda Page of being timid.
She took over as mayor of Mount Pleasant four months ago, and last week Town Council announced plans for its first tax increase on residents in nearly two decades.
These days, merely saying the words "tax increase" can set people to painting signs, planning protests and calling for politicians' heads. To suggest such a thing right after taking office could be viewed in some circles as suicidal.
But Page even said she wished the tax increase was "a little more."
Why would she do this? Maybe because she knows the town needs it, and she isn't afraid to say so.
For years, Page and council members such as Elton Carrier have watched the town fall farther and farther behind on infrastructure improvements. Mount Pleasant's revenue has not kept pace with needed maintenance on its 36 million square feet of roads, 806,000 feet of stormwater pipes or 315,000 feet of ditches. Inflation affects government too.
But there was little appetite to raise taxes to fix that, until now. And a funny thing has happened: Not many people have complained.
Job 1: Fix the roads
This has been coming for a long time.
In 2012 a consultant estimated that Mount Pleasant needed $14 million more a year just to keep up with the maintenance on its roads and stormwater system.
The various tax and fee increases proposed last week - which would cost the owner of a $300,000 home another $36 in property taxes and another $30 in stormwater fees - would bring in a little more than $3 million a year.
That's why Page said they could have gone higher. But, she says, this is a good compromise to bridge the gap.
Carrier concedes that "When you say the word 'tax,' it raises the hair on the necks." But so long as people know what the money is for, they generally understand.
"Our assets are deteriorating and I think we're trying to be a little proactive," Carrier says.
If you want to know what kicking the can down the road looks like, check out the state's Department of Transportation road-repairs backlog. It's about $29 billion right now. Yeah, with a "B."
Of course, this has not been unanimous. Councilman Gary Santos, one of three members opposed to the tax hike, says his wasn't a knee-jerk anti-tax vote, it was just pumping the brakes.
Santos says the town should first consider other ways to raise revenue. He notes that the town gave up $90,000 in parking revenue at its waterfront park - a park everyone in the county uses for free, but the town pays for alone. He says perhaps Mount Pleasant should dip into its healthy fund balance of $23 million to pay for some repairs, perhaps leverage grants for others.
"I understand our taxes are low, but that's not a reason to raise them," he says.
Policy, not popularity
Carrier is a banker, and he is not keen on the idea of dipping into savings.
The town needs to build a new fire station at Carolina Park. It's going to lose $9 million in tax increment financing revenue in three years. And the town needs a good rainy day fund for the next hurricane.
It's been nearly 25 years, you know.
Fact is, the various tax and fee increases here are pretty modest. The business license increase would bring in $500,000, the proposed property tax would net $1.5 million and the stormwater fees would bring in another $1.1 million.
This money wouldn't fix all the roads at once, but it would put them on a schedule. That's a start.
The new budget will be released in May, and the town will hold public hearings on the tax increase before voting in June. And both sides are getting their say. So bravo to town officials for doing things the right way, even if it isn't pleasant.
But that's what real leaders have to do sometimes.
"I would argue that in public service you do have to do things that are fundamentally right for your community, whether it's popular or not," Page says. "It's tough, but we need people to be able to do that."
It used to be, that's what elections were about - picking people who you trusted with big decisions. And then letting them do their job. That's what is happening in Mount Pleasant right now, and it is refreshing.
Maybe this really is the Land of Milk and Honey - and fewer potholes.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org
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