Charleston County Council resurrects sales tax referendum

An overpass at the busy intersection of U.S. Highway 17 and Main Road is among road projects a proposed Charleston County sale tax increase could fund.

Charleston County Council on Wednesday resurrected plans for a sales tax referendum that the group voted down less than a week ago.

At a special meeting to reconsider its former decision, the council voted 6-1 to approve a Nov. 8 ballot referendum that would ask voters for a half-cent sales tax increase to fund $2.1 billion in transportation projects and green space acquisition. Councilwoman Anna Johnson cast the “no” vote. Council members Colleen Condon and Henry Darby were absent.

Condon was in Philadelphia serving on the Democratic National Convention Rules Committee. Chairman Elliott Summey said he didn’t know why Darby did not attend.

No changes were made to the referendum that received the first of three necessary approvals on July 19. The completion of Interstate 526 was not added to the list of road projects that could be funded with the money. Council argued for more than an hour last week over whether voters should be asked about supporting the highway project, but the issue wasn’t debated during Wednesday’s brief meeting.

Summey suggested the group refrain from voting on any amendments since two members were absent.

Johnson voted against the referendum for the second time because it didn’t include the completion of I-526.

“I still think that 526 is a highway that should be built and should be looked at as our number one project in Charleston County,” she said.

The council still has an opportunity to change the plan, or vote it down altogether, when the full group meets for the third and final vote on Aug. 9. The county has until noon Aug. 15 to get the referendum wording to the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration. Missing that deadline would mean waiting until the 2018 election to pose a sales tax increase to voters.

The council was able to reconsider the second vote because Councilman Vic Rawl motioned to reconsider his “no” vote at the end of Thursday’s meeting. Under county rules, if a matter is to be voted on again, whoever is on the prevailing side of the vote has to bring it up.

If Rawl had voted “yes” last week, the measure would have passed second reading. Rawl said after Wednesday’s meeting that his decision to vote it down only to bring it up again a week later was a strategic move “to buy time.”

Rawl said that after several amendments were proposed and failed Thursday, he wanted council members “to regroup, rethink their position(s), and discuss it with folks and then look at again fresh.”

He said he’s unsure if that was a wise move since the plan advanced without amendments anyway.

“Because of the short time frame ... I was willing to say, ‘Fine, let’s pass second (reading), and let’s see what happens to the amendments on third,’ ” he said.

Councilman Dickie Schweers proposed an amendment Wednesday to increase the amount of funds for green space from $125 million to $210 million. He withdrew it after Summey’s advice, but said he was uncomfortable with council’s decision to wait to discuss all the proposed changes until the final vote.

“I just think there are some key decisions that still need to be made on this, and for us to think we are going to put them off until third reading, that kind of defeats the purpose of having three readings,” he said. “The last meeting we had was total chaos.

“We had motions thrown out just randomly, and none of them could pass,” Schweers said. “I would hate to see us duplicate that at third reading, and I fear we could actually do that.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail