FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 3, 2019
Coastal Conservation League, residents challenge Interstate 526 contract
Legal filing calls into question Charleston County’s use of half-cent sales tax
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Today, the Coastal Conservation League and three Charleston County residents filed a lawsuit in South Carolina state court challenging the county’s use of funds from the 2016 half-cent sales tax for the Interstate 526 extension project. Andy Gowder of Charleston firm Austen Gowder is representing the environmental nonprofit and citizen plaintiffs.
The request for a declaratory judgment contends Charleston County is breaking its “contract with voters” by obligating 2016 half-cent sales tax money to the I-526 extension. In 2016, I-526 was not listed in the ordinance Charleston County Council approved to put the sales tax referendum on the ballot.
“It’s simple. Voters in Charleston County were asked to approve funding for specific projects. I-526 wasn’t one of them,” Conservation League Executive Director Laura Cantral said. “We’re stepping in to hold elected officials accountable and protect taxpayers. Charleston County should not be allowed to disenfranchise its own voters.”
The plaintiffs will ask a judge to determine the validity of the Intergovernmental Agreement for I-526. Under that three-party contract, the S.C. Department of Transportation would build the road; the S.C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank would cover $420 million of the project cost; and Charleston County would cover the balance of at least $305 million. To cover its portion of the project contract, Charleston County has committed funds from the half-cent sales tax.
All three parties are named defendants in the filing, which asserts Charleston County is:
- Breaking its “contract with voters” by obligating 2016 half-cent sales tax money to the I-526 extension. In 2016, I-526 was specifically left off the sales-tax project list that council members promoted to voters.
- Obligating future councils to allocate sales-tax dollars to pay for the extension, as part of the Intergovernmental Agreement between the county, the state Department of Transportation and the S. C. Transportation Infrastructure Bank.
- Using questionable procedures to appropriate sales-tax money to I-526.
You can view the full complaint online at:
Johns Island native and West Ashley resident Abe Jenkins and James Island residents Renee Orth and Libby Smith joined the Conservation League in this challenge. All three voted in the 2016 election and supported the half-cent increase.
“Charleston County’s use of the sales tax for I-526 misrepresents the will of the voters. Our tax dollars should be spent on what we were told they would be spent on. Not entirely new projects without voter consent,” Abe Jenkins said.
“Johns Islanders have been waiting for congestion relief and road improvements for years and we were led to believe our tax dollars would be spent on fixing Main Road at U.S. 17 — the hurricane evacuation route for the Sea Islands,” Jenkins said. Jenkins is the grandson of Esau Jenkins, the late civil rights leader and community organizer.
“I originally planned to vote ‘no’ on the referendum. I felt Charleston County had much higher transportation priorities than I-526. I changed my vote only when my council members, because of taxpayer opposition, removed I-526 funding from the project list. They did so very publicly — at council meetings, in a Post and Courier op-ed and in the list of projects that would be funded, which was handed out at the polls,” Libby Smith said.
“My vote was based on my belief that they were telling me the truth about their plans. Clearly, they were not. As a voter in Charleston County, I did not give County Council permission to spend the money on I-526, and they should not be able to do so,” Smith said.
“I voted yes on the half-cent sales tax because I was led to believe the list of projects on the referendum was complete and the funds could not be used for the 526 extension. I would not have voted for it otherwise,” Renee Orth said. “This bait-and-switch strategy is outrageous. It undermined my trust in our county government. Without trust democracy simply cannot work.”
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The Coastal Conservation League is a nonprofit advocacy and conservation organization whose mission is to protect South Carolina’s natural landscapes, abundant wildlife, clean water and quality of life by working with citizens, local government and the state legislature. Learn more and get involved at www.coastalconservationleague.org. Celebrating 30 years — 1989 to 2019.