Mount Pleasant voters may see park vote this fall

This 2010 aerial view shows Mount Pleasant’s proposed 245-acre park on Rifle Range Road in the lower left of the photo. The open space of Boone Hall Plantation on U.S. Highway 17 is shown to the middle right.

MOUNT PLEASANT — Voters here may get a chance this fall to decide if they want higher property taxes in exchange for more and better town parks.

Town Council’s Recreation Committee voted 3-0 on Monday to proceed with a referendum Nov. 3, but full council will discuss the issue in more depth next week. And council members ultimately could decide to scrap the idea.

Town Administrator Eric DeMoura presented a possible referendum question Monday, one that would raise taxes by about $20 a year on a $100,000 house or by about $100 a year on a $500,000 home. The proceeds would be used to improve the town’s property at Rifle Range Road, Carolina Park and Mount Pleasant Memorial Waterfront Park, as well as acquiring other possible park space.

“All these projects exceed our ability to fund them,” DeMoura said. “This is a way for the public to weigh in or opine how much they want these recreation services.”

Committee members expressed concern about how vague the language would be and about the expected low turnout in this fall’s election. The only other item on this fall’s ballot is the election of four council members, and about 85 percent of the town’s voters typically stay home during these municipal elections.

Committee Chair Elton Carrier said, “The devil is in the details, of course, and we don’t have that as such, which is a little concerning to me when we’re going out to the public with this big of an increase.”

Councilman Gary Santos pushed for the referendum discussion, noting a recent recreation meeting at Alhambra Hall showed many residents are willing to pay more for that service.

“This is just the first blush at doing this. This is not in stone,” he said. “If they want to do it, they’ll vote for it.”

The increase would bring in about $2.5 million per year to the town. Town Council would decide whether the tax would end after it raises a certain sum of money or whether it would continue indefinitely.

Mayor Linda Page said the town must be cautious and also consider the cost of running new parks and recreational facilities, not just the cost of building them.

“There’s no sun-setting once you have facilities,” she said. “It doesn’t stop with construction. It continues forever.”

Councilwoman Thomasena Stokes-Marshall, who has been trying to push the town to build a second senior center, said the proposed referendum is not very inclusive.

“Nowhere do I see any language in this referendum that addresses the needs of our growing senior population, whatsoever,” she said.

Councilman Chris Nickels noted that council members raised taxes a few years ago without a referendum to pay for maintaining the town’s road and drainage systems, but he said a referendum is appropriate this time.

“Recreation is not an absolute necessity,” he said, “but it’s close.”

The referendum could mention three town park sites where improvements are planned. At Memorial Waterfront Park, the town is eying a $2 million-plus project to add an amphitheater, a water taxi stop and public floating docks with about eight slips. It also could improve its existing cafe and gift shop, park lighting and its overflow parking.

On Rifle Range Road, the town and county own about 250 undeveloped acres near Hamlin Road where they plan to blend active and passive recreational uses, including ball fields, trails, fishing amenities and perhaps even a gym or pool. The town also has 40 acres donated by Carolina Park’s developer and is looking to build bathrooms, ball fields and a possible walking trail there.

Catherine Main of the East Cooper Land Trust said she supports a referendum to improve existing park sites, “but only if it includes acquiring new open space.”

Main said the town can improve its existing park land most any time, but the town’s rapid rate of growth is closing the window on acquiring certain lands for public use.

If council were to proceed with a referendum, it would have to approve going forward with it on July 14 and then hold a special meeting July 21. That’s the same day it is expected to hold a ceremony marking the start of construction on its new Town Hall.

DeMoura said approval would have to come soon to meet the county’s deadline for preparing the town’s ballots and advertising its election.

Also on Monday, the Recreation Committee voted to recommend a series of fee increases for several recreation programs, including aquatics, tennis, kids grow and mom’s morning out, the senior center, facility rentals and sponsorship. The increases, if adopted by full council next week, would raise about $175,000 more per year to support the programs.

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.