A penny more? Georgetown voters to decide

Georgetown County voters will have their fourth chance at a countywide sales tax Nov. 6, and this time both sides say the stakes are higher than ever.

Proponents of a $40 million, eight-year additional penny sales tax for capital projects say the proposal will be a huge lift to the county’s economy in both infrastructure and quality of life.

Opponents say the projects are worthy, but this is no time to raise taxes.

The tax would bring the countywide total for general purposes to 7 cents on the dollar, subject to existing state exemptions such as for groceries and prescription drugs.

The ballot question lists specific projects that according to state law must be built in order of priority. The levy is limited to eight years unless voters approve it again.

Leading the list is $5.5 million to assist with the expected $30 million cost to dig the port of Georgetown’s shipping channel back to its 27-foot approved depth. The port will wither and die unless that is done, backers say. At the same time, port officials and supporters believe there is a market out there for the smaller ships that could be tapped if the channel had the required depth, and the increased shipping would boost the county’s economy.

Other projects include recreational facilities and new county fire stations. Supporters say the fire stations are a win-win because stricter insurance rules have forced house insurance rates up on thousands of homeowners who will see lower rates if there are closer fire stations.

Some of the projects have long been on the county’s Capital Improvements Plan, an outgrowth of a citizen-driven Visions II program six years ago. Some of those projects, such as a tournament-size boat landing and new judicial center, have been completed.

The proposal has strong business-oriented support from the Chamber of Commerce, Georgetown County Economic Development Alliance and Coastal Carolinas Association of Realtors.

Proponents formed the group Pennies for Progress to encourage a yes vote.

Opponents formed the Stop the Tax Hike Committee, and have posted billboards urging a no vote against the “$40 million tax hike.”

Those in favor of the proposal also include student and parent groups and Friends of the Library organizations. One of the major opponents is the Pawleys Island Civic Association, which argued that higher taxes will discourage summer rentals.

Bill Crowther chairs Pennies for Progress and is also the executive of the Alliance for Economic Development. The alliance is privately funded by members who include a cross-section of business and industry. Pennies is also a cross-section of citizens, he said.

Supporters believe “it is a huge economic development program for Georgetown County,” Crowther said.

“Once we get the port dredged, it means a $30 million annual economic benefit for Georgetown.”

Other items, such as the fire stations, are also important for economic development and attracting new residents and industry, but “most of these projects will enhance the quality of life for the residents of Georgetown County,” he said.

Quality of life “is a very big factor” when recruiting new business and industry, Crowther said.

Another economic boost from the new tax would be the county’s pledge, through a resolution, to lift the impact fee on most new construction. Many business leaders, real estate brokers and builders fought the impact fee and say it has crippled progress in the county.

The county imposed the fee nearly three years ago to help pay for the capital projects.

“It has severely hurt the building industry in this county,” Crowther said.

The parks and libraries were to be built anyway, Crowther said. The sales tax is a way to speed them up.

Steven Neeves, legislative director for the Realtor association, said the group supports the proposal because of the removal of the impact fee and because of the improvements that could help draw new people.

The board debated the endorsement at length and had a special meeting with Georgetown members, and all are on board, he said.

“So we look at it as a win-win,” he said.

Charlie Luquire, a retired environmental quality manager at International Paper Co. who lives at Pawleys Island, is leading the opponents. They are also a cross-section of people who believe the projects are good, but the proposal is not.

“We just don’t think it was appropriate to even be thinking about a tax increase,” Luquire said. If times were booming, it might be different, he added.

The local share of the channel dredging could be provided with existing funds, and the other facilities delayed, he suggested. Or, the county could have proposed a half-cent sales tax for two years. There is no need to rush the other projects and impose a new tax, he said.

“We think if the port is an important piece of our economic future, we ought to roll that out,” Luquire said. Sales taxes are regressive and “hit hardest on the most vulnerable.”

Another issue is that since the recession, the county has cut employee pay and is losing public safety workers to locales with higher salaries. The county should consider more carefully before adding new facilities that will need other employees, when money is that hard to come by, Luquire said.

“We’re losing a lot of good people from the core of our services,” he said.

Some opponents also object to the possibility that the county will borrow the entire amount and do all the projects as soon as possible rather than in order. The law allows the county to do so.

Proponents favor such a move, Crowther said, to take advantage of lower interest rates and building costs.

In 1990, county voters turned down a chance to impose a penny of sales tax to cut property taxes. In 1998, they voted by nearly 2-1 an $11 million capital projects sales tax, mostly to build parks. In 2004, another measure to impose the tax to cut property taxes failed narrowly, 52-48 percent.