Aiken County and municipal attorneys were sloppy in putting together the local penny sales tax referendum voters approved last November and now there's legal confusion about when the revenues will be distributed.
An informal opinion issued by the attorney general's office notes that at the end of the list of road improvements and municipal projects, the ballot reads, in part, that "Net proceeds of the capital project sales and use tax, if approved, must be expended for the purposes stated in the priority listed above." (Italics ours).
The problem is that the referendum authors didn't mean to prioritize the projects (that was to be done later by each community), but simply to list them. A literal interpretation of the ballot would ensure Aiken County would never again OK a local sales tax.
The tax, which only narrowly passed, was sold with the understanding that each community - cities, towns as well as the county - would receive a given percentage of sales tax revenues each year over a seven-year period. This would enable them to prioritize and plan for their projects.
But if the projects must be paid for in the order listed on the ballot, then all of Aiken County's projects would come before any of the cities' and towns' because its list was first, and each road to be paved was listed by its number.
Right-of-way problems to repair one road could block every other project that's lower on the list. Cities' and towns' projects were listed alphabetically below the county's.
As North Augusta Mayor Lark Jones points out, with all the county projects going first his city (and other municipalities) would not see a dime of sales tax money for three, four or more years. Voters would never have approved such a ridiculous scheme.
The two largest cities, Aiken and North Augusta, will ask a circuit judge to restore fairness and common sense to the disposition of revenues that voters thought the sales tax referendum called for when they approved it.
The odds on a favorable ruling would be greatly improved if all governing entities sharing in the tax revenues agree on how they want it dispersed. This means the County Council should formally and enthusiastically support the municipalities.