It’s tempting to support the Georgetown County referendum to raise the county’s sales tax. The money would pay for long-needed and overdue dredging of the Georgetown port, a project we have long supported. And paving roads, building parks and expanding libraries are all attractive ideas.
But we can’t quite bring ourselves to get behind it. It’s not that we don’t like the projects. But we never managed to get quite comfortable with the reasoning for the tax, the list of projects or its length. And while we won’t think badly of Georgetown County voters if they do approve it – and we’ll enjoy its results as much as anyone else – we can’t bring ourselves to recommend a tax we don’t wholeheartedly support.
First, sales taxes are intrinsically regressive, affecting most those who have the least. Yes, this effort wouldn’t increase the rate on vital necessities, like food or prescription drugs, but families already struggling to pay for everyday things such as school clothes, shampoo or laundry detergent would feel the brunt of the hike more than others better able to pay. That’s why increases to the sales tax have a high bar to overcome, especially as the economy continues to lag. If Georgetown County were in the middle of an economic boom, with low unemployment and rising wages, we’d likely have a different feeling about things, but that’s simply not the case right now.
The $40 million list of projects to be completed with the money from the tax increase also struck us as excessive. If this had been a vote only to raise money for dredging the port, we could easily support it as a project that’s been needed for years to help turn the area’s economy around. But that’s not what we’ve been offered. The parks and library expansions, as much as we appreciate them, are frankly wants, not needs. And we cannot bring ourselves to support raising everybody’s taxes for the sake of snazzier recreation facilities.
State law allows these local-option tax increases to be instituted in multiples of two years, up to eight years. It’s never been adequately explained – at least for us – why the maximum length is necessary in this case. Many of the parks and library expansions farther down the priority list are already slated for completion as part of the county’s Capital Improvement Plan. If there’s already a plan in place for these projects, why institute a new tax on everybody to pay for them? A shorter tax increase of two years simply to pay for the dredging, and perhaps some road paving if money was left over, would have been far more palatable.
One possible answer for the long project list may be that this is a way of eliminating the county’s impact fee, put in place in 2009 to help pay for the increased services that growth requires. The fee – which County Council has said it will abolish if this new sales tax is approved – has been disparaged by many as a detriment to new development, discouraging businesses and new residents from moving to the county. That may be the case, but this swap – if we may call it that – is not the right way to end it.
Like it or not, new businesses and residents do bring with them an increased demand upon county services, and it seems only fair for these newer residents to bear the brunt of that increase, rather than foist it off through an increased sales tax onto the backs of all of those who are already in the county.