Originally created 08/17/97

Officials rush to put local sales tax on ballot



AIKEN - A tax referendum soundly rejected by Aiken County voters in 1992 is again being advocated by city councils in Aiken and North Augusta.

Both municipalities have passed resolutions at meetings this month, asking Aiken County Council to place the original version of the Local Option Sales Tax on the ballot in the November special election.

County officials, however, say they doubt the question will be put to the taxpayers this fall because there may not be time to get it on the ballot.

One of three versions of the Local Option Sales Tax passed by the South Carolina Legislature since 1990, it calls for 1 cent to be added to the present 5 cents per dollar sales tax in Aiken County.

The majority of the revenue generated by the sales tax, 71 percent, would be used to roll back real and personal property taxes. The remaining 29 percent of the money would be divided among the county and the municipalities, with 67 percent going to the county and 33 percent to the cities.

In Aiken County, the owner of a $150,000 house would see a decrease of $398.24; in the city of Aiken, $650.96; in North Augusta, $639.75.

"Technically, the mechanics would make it extremely difficult to get the referendum on the ballot this fall," County Administrator Bill Shepherd said.

County Attorney Robert Bell has said that the county council must pass an ordinance to place the Local Option Sales Tax on the ballot, Mr. Shepherd said. That would require three readings, one of which must be a public hearing.

"You have to advertise a public meeting 15 days in advance," Mr. Shepherd said.

Then, he said, the resolution must be sent to the Department of Justice for review and approved before Sept. 9, the deadline for placing items on the ballot for the November elections.

On the other hand, Councilwoman Karen Papouchado said that according to legal advice given to the Aiken City Council, the council could pass a resolution to put the question on the ballot. In that case, it could go before the voters within the remaining time, Mrs. Papouchado said.

The question of ordinance or resolution has been left up to county attorneys to answer by the South Carolina Election Commission, said Denton Johnson, executive director of the Aiken County Elections Office.

"There are so many complications in the law on the Local Option Sales Tax that the elections office would prefer not to comment on which procedure to take," Mr. Johnson said.

At the moment, the Local Option Sales Tax is not on Tuesday's Aiken County Council agenda, but Chairman Ronnie Young said it will likely be discussed at the work session immediately preceding the meeting. It is not likely that the subject will come up at the regular meeting, however, which is the last scheduled session of county council this month.

If it does not get on the ballot this November, county council is likely to have the question dropped on its doorstep again for the 1998 general election.

"My guess is that North Augusta City Council would immediately pass another resolution for the next ballot," said Charles Martin, North Augusta City Administrator.

The options

Option 1

The original ordinance passed by the South Carolina General Assembly in 1990 permits the imposition of a 1-cent sales tax to be used to roll back county and city residential property taxes. Any county collecting more than $5 million dollars, as is estimated to be the case of Aiken County, would have to give the state 5 percent of the revenues collected, or about $350,000 annually, to be distributed to poorer counties.

Option 2

The second option, passed by the Legislature in the mid-1990s, permits counties to impose a 1cent sales tax to raise revenues for transportation-related projects such as constructing highways, roads and bridges and doing drainage work.

This option has a sunset provision with the tax ending when the project is completed.

Option 3

Passed in the current session of the Legislature, this would permit the imposition of the 1-cent sales tax to finance capital projects to be decided by an independent commission appointed by the county and the municipalities. These projects would be placed on the ballot along with the maximum time for completion.

Both Options 1 and 2 would raise about $7.7 million, as estimated by the South Carolina Department of Revenue.