Does Lexington County need a penny tax? Voters could provide answer

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Lexington County voters could be asked next year to approve a new penny sales tax to address the growing county’s infrastructure needs.

Lexington County Council is organizing a commission that will draw up a list of projects that would be funded by the sales tax, if voters give their approval to the idea on election day 2022.

“What it boils down to is, if not a capital penny, then what?” said County Council Chairman Todd Cullum.

Lexington County is one of the fastest growing counties in the state, and county officials are grappling with how to absorb the impact of that growth on county services. In April, the county froze approval of new subdivisions in the county, motivated in part by concerns the county’s roads couldn’t handle the extra traffic. The county has also mulled expanding its curbside trash pickup program as the growing population strains its trash collection centers.

The tax would fund improvements to county roadways, including road widening, resurfacing, new traffic signals and turn lanes, and intersection improvements. Cullum said the tax could also be used to fix the county’s stormwater infrastructure.

“How do you talk about roads without talking about stormwater? And how do you talk about stormwater without talking about roads?” asked Cullum at an April meeting. “You can’t. They’re one and the same.”

In reviewing the county’s options for funding needed improvements, council members expressed a preference for a sales tax over new fees on vehicles or property. The main advantage in council members’ eyes, besides potentially raising the most revenue, is that anyone driving through Lexington County on Interstates 20 or 26 would have to pay the tax whenever they stop for gas or lunch, even if they don’t live in the county. Cullum estimates that 40% of projected penny funding could come from people who don’t live in Lexington County.

“If somebody offered to make 40% of your house payment, would you turn them down?” he asked.

Other counties in the state have adopted similar local taxes, including many of Lexington County’s neighbors.

“If you hate the penny tax, you despise the penny tax, you hate the government … but if your gas light comes on, you’re going to buy gas,” said Councilman Darrell Hudson.

On May 25, the county approved organizing a commission that will review potential projects, the first step in putting a penny tax proposal on the ballot next year. The commission would review projects and draw up a list for Lexington County Council and, ultimately, the voters to approve.

County Administrator Lynn Sturkie told council members the commission members could be in place by the end of June. Three members will have to be approved by Lexington County Council, while another will represent the town of Lexington.

But the county will have to overcome skepticism about new taxes among county voters. A penny-tax proposal was defeated at the ballot box in 2014, and Lexington County residents have watched as neighboring Richland County struggled with its own penny tax.

Richland County voters approved a penny tax to fund road improvements in 2012, but rising costs meant the penny tax program was facing $154 million in overruns by 2019. Last year, Richland County Council approved a revised penny program that scaled back some projects, but the county remains locked in a dispute with the state Department of Revenue, which wants the county to repay $32 million in spending on the program DOR deemed impermissible.

Cullum said the county considered taking another stab at a penny referendum in 2020, but ultimately abandoned the effort because of the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the pandemic didn’t slow down Lexington County’s growth, and county officials worry the needs will only grow with time.

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