Charleston County to talk tax hike

A proposal for a half-cent increase in the transportation sales tax is on the agenda for the Thursday meeting of the Charleston County Council Finance Committee.

A memo released Friday calls for council to order a referendum to be placed on the ballot for the Nov. 6 general election to ask voters whether to increase the transportation sales tax to a full penny on the dollar.

“Through the existing program, it has become clear that there remain major projects which will need funding for the foreseeable future. It is projected that over a new 25-year period, this half-cent will generate $1.35 billion,” states the memo from Deputy Clerk Kristen L. Salisbury to members of the Finance Committee, which includes all council members.

The memo goes on to advise the council that in order to get the referendum on the November ballot, it would need to be approved by Aug. 15.

At least three council members were caught off-guard by the tax proposal, saying they weren't aware of it.

Councilman Joe Qualey said he was “stunned” that the proposal to increase the half-cent transportation sales tax is on the Finance Committee agenda next Thursday.

“It's never been discussed. It's a dramatic, big deal. It's a very, very serious matter. I have not heard a word about a county-wide tax increase until today, which troubles me greatly,” he said.

Qualey noted that County Council just passed a budget with a 2-percent increase in the tax rate. He said that he thought county residents are tired of new taxes, and he wanted to know more about how much money has already been spent through the Charleston County Roadwise program and how much is left.

“Things like this shouldn't be rushed through and shouldn't be done without the opportunity for County Council and citizens to have full input. I am blown away by the fact that this thing is on the agenda for next Thursday without any prior discussion at all,” he said.

Councilman Vic Rawl said he was unaware of the proposal.

“I don't know. I need to look at that. I'm not real wild about it,” Rawl said.

County Council member Herb Sass said he, too, was unaware of the proposal to raise the transportation sales tax by a half-cent.

“Wow, that's all news to me. This just came out of left field,” Sass said.

“Nothing like doing things in a huge hurry is there? It seems like they are asking us to do an awful lot in a very short time.”

The memo proposes that county staff be directed to receive input from the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments, the Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce infrastructure study and the municipalities, and to return to council in September with a proposal for projects and allocations of the potential funding.

“It is intended that there will be proposed allocations for mass transit, greenspace and roads and related infrastructure, including bicycle and pedestrian facilities,” the memo concludes.

Council Chairman Teddie Pryor could not be reached for comment.

Council Vice Chairman Elliott Summey said he has been working with county staff on the proposed half-cent transportation sales tax hike.

“I very much support it,” Summey said.

Summey said the half-penny transportation sales tax increase is a more viable option than raising property taxes. The local option tax spreads the burden of a tax hike on a larger group of people, including tourists, he said.

“We need to get real. We're not going to get a whole lot of money out of the state and federal governments,” he said. “There are huge needs out there.”

Charleston County RoadWise program is the name of county government's management program for the construction of road, highway, resurfacing, paving and drainage projects that are funded by the Charleston County Transportation Half-Cent Sales Tax.

In the fall of 2004, Charleston County voters agreed to add a half-cent sales tax on purchases made in the county for 25 years for a total investment of $1.3 billion. The sales tax will be spent on two priorities — green space acquisition and transportation projects including mass transit. Collections of sales tax funds began in May of 2005.

The biggest project in the county Roadwise program is the widening of Johnnie Dodds Boulevard in Mount Pleasant at a cost of more than $50 million. The Palmetto Commerce Parkway in Dorchester County is another Roadwise success, Summey said.

Summey said new Roadwise funds could be used for a “flyover” at U.S. 17 and Main Road on Johns Island. However, he emphasized that the proposed tax hike is not about generating new funds for the completion of the controversial Interstate 526 project on James and Johns islands.

“Our intention is for the state to build that. I don't want to see a dime of this go to the interstate unless it's match money,” he said.

Summey is chairman of the Charleston Area Regional Transportation Authority board and an advocate of better mass transit. More funding through the half-cent sales tax increase would be an opportunity for the area to get serious about improving its mass transit, he said.