Charleston County Half-Cent Sales Tax Referendum
Charleston County voters passed a referendum on November 8th, 2016 for a half-cent sales tax increase to fund road projects, mass transit, and the greenbelt program.
The referendum puts the local sales tax rate at 9% — higher than the cities of Atlanta, Charlotte, and New York City — raising $2.1 billion over twenty-five years. This type of tax hits the working poor and seniors on fixed incomes the hardest. Any form of a tax increase must be held to the highest scrutiny by the public to ensure that the list of projects to be funded would positively impact all of Charleston County’s residents, particularly those with the greatest needs.
For months the Coastal Conservation League, other organizations, and the public made a concerted effort to work with County Council and community leaders to identify roads in need of capacity improvements, advocate for more funding to improve CARTA, fund a Bus Rapid Transit route along the I-26 corridor, and protect open space in our rural areas. We were proud of everyone’s work and optimistic that the cost benefit analysis of the half-cent sales tax increase would demonstrate that real solutions to real problems in our community would be addressed.
That was before certain Charleston County Council members began engaging in backroom deals to change the project list and transform the sales tax into a slush fund with zero accountability, transparency, or guarantees that taxpayer money would go towards funding any specific project. Many of the proposed projects listed in the half-cent referendum ordinance are state roads that are supposed to be built and maintained with state dollars. The State has ruled that many of these projects are too expensive and are a low-priority, so County Council want local tax payers to foot the bill instead.
Among other changes made to the ordinance after it passed third reading at County Council, the line item specifically allocating funding for mass transit (including CARTA and the Bus Rapid Transit project) was mysteriously deleted — and later added back in the form of a toothless, non-binding resolution. Further, Chairman Elliott Summey promised $150 million to projects that the State was supposed to pay for (with zero public notice or input) in an attempt to resurrect the controversial I-526 extension project.
Local elected officials ultimately rejected this proposal in the days leading up to November 8th and publicly promised that they would make sure the half-cent dollars get put towards the projects listed in the ordinance. The referendum passed by a mere 5,000 votes.
The half-cent funds continue to be threatened by the specter of I-526. Just a month after the referendum passed, Chairman Summey and Mayor Tecklenburg stood before the members of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) promising that they have the votes to allocate the $350 million shortfall to construct the I-526 extension using local and regional funds. Chairman Summey pledged $150 million will come from the county. The only source for that much money is from the half-cent sales tax.
Since the passing of the sales tax, Charleston County has been impacted by nearly 80 days of sunny day nuisance flooding in 2017, and multiple hurricanes, including Irma in 2017 and Matthew in 2016. And of course, the Thousand Year Storm in 2015.
Three of the last four years have been highest on record for flooding in Charleston County and this pattern will continue to rise along with sea levels. Flooding is undeniably the number one issue facing Charleston.
In the wake of each flood are more damaged homes, swamped neighborhoods, and impassable roads. It is more important now than ever for local elected officials to demonstrate responsibility with tax payer’s dollars and address flooding projects before any new transportation related projects begin.
Hurricane season is perpetually looming around the corner in the Lowcountry, and every year the threat of impending storms seems ever more severe.
2018 must be the year that county residents see real action taken to mitigate flooding.
The Half-Cent Sales Tax ordinance states that the funds can be used, “For financing the costs of highways, roads, streets, bridges, and other transportation-related projects facilities, and drainage facilities related thereto, and mass transit systems operated by Charleston County or jointly operated by the County and other governmental entities, which may include, but not limited to…”
There it is… clear cut and bare faced. While most people agree that Charleston County is plagued with traffic congestion, what is more urgent is the fact that there won’t be any residents left in Charleston County to pay for road improvements with their tax dollars if they are not able to safely live in their homes and commute to work.
We must demand our local officials tell Charleston County Council that before any new roads are built, our tax dollars must first be spent on fixing our drainage infrastructure.