A squabble among Anderson legislators is threatening a building program for Charleston County schools that has allowed the district to build new schools through a sales tax dedicated to school construction.
Charleston County voters approved a six-year, 1 percent sales tax increase in 2010 dedicated to the school system's capital needs. School officials want to extend the tax this year ahead of its expiration in 2016 but can't unless the Legislature passes a bill allowing a referendum in November.
Charleston and Horry counties are the only localities that benefit from a 1 percent sales tax dedicated to each school system's capital needs. Other counties like Anderson and Kershaw, are also seeking inclusion in legislation that would allow them to levy the tax for schools.
A bill that would allow a referendum this November on extending Charleston County's tax has stalled over a disagreement between two Anderson Republicans. Sen. Kevin Bryant doesn't want to see another tax levied on his constituents, while Rep. Brian White wants to give voters the chance to decide whether they want to invest in capital projects for schools.
The bill initially passed the Senate and the House, but after it was amended in the House to add Anderson County, the bill stalled in a Senate conference committee last week. The measure will be revisited again on Tuesday when legislators return to Columbia. A separate bill passed the House in April but never made it to a vote in the Senate.
Michael Bobby, chief financial officer for the Charleston County School District, said getting a question on the November ballot about extending the tax is key. If voters approve the tax extension the district can move forward with financing building projects that otherwise would be delayed by several years, he said. Without a referendum this year, the district has to wait until 2016 to pitch the tax extension to voters.
"Waiting until 2016 puts the county in a holding pattern when we have immediate pressing needs," Bobby said.
The sales tax is expected to generate $450 million through 2016. The funds have provided for four new elementary schools and construction of an advanced studies center at Wando High School. The district is estimating that a six-year extension of the tax would generate $540 million of which $378 million to go toward major capital projects. The rest of the funds would go toward maintaining school buildings and technology.
School Board Chairwoman Cindy Bohn Coats said the benefit of another referendum is that it gives a "transparent lineup" of projects for taxpayers to see and approve. The school board will have to whittle down a preliminary list of projects totaling $614 million to a final list ahead of a referendum. "I trust that (legislators) will ultimately see that a transparent, one-cent sales tax referendum is an excellent process for school district capital programs both for the district and the taxpayers," Coats said.
Among the list of possible projects are a new elementary school and a second high school in Mount Pleasant. Town Council has a committee examining school needs to identify specific school projects to pitch to the district.
"I don't know what (the school district's) Plan B is if things should not come to fruition," said Town Councilman Paul Gawrych, who is chairing the committee. "It's somewhat concerning that we're at the hands of petty politics in Columbia.
"(Legislators are) not aware of the unintended consequences of this type of stuff."
The need is so critical in Mount Pleasant, Gawrych said, that enrollment projections show that a new elementary school in Carolina Park would be at capacity as soon as it opens.
Local legislators, including Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Charleston, and Rep. Leon Stavrinakis, D-Charleston, who cosponsored the House bill, said the referendum allows for transparency and gives voters a choice. It also helps alleviate the burden of tax hikes on property owners to pay for new schools.
"It's my hope that the conference committee will meet again and remove the Anderson County portion from the bill," said Grooms. "Then the bill will pass."
If not, Grooms worries that Bryant might try to block the bill's passage through a filibuster. White, in an interview, said he wouldn't support removal of Anderson County unless the Senate exhausts all other options to get to a vote.
Reach Amanda Kerr at 937-5546 or at Twitter.com/PCAmandaKerr.
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