Originally created 05/03/01

Council considers bond issue to sidestep lawsuits



AIKEN - Aiken County Council is exploring the possibility of borrowing against the penny local option sales tax through a bond issue.

If they can, that could make pending lawsuits against the county moot.

The council voted unanimously late Tuesday to direct its attorney and finance director to research the legality and economic impact of the proposal made by Councilman Chuck Smith.

"My suggestion was that we look at trying to find an alternative revenue source to fund projects up front, and eliminate the lawsuits," Mr. Smith said Wednesday. "... But most importantly, we can send the message that we're going to do what we said we were going to do."

Keeping the promise to distribute tax funds fairly throughout the county is a priority, Councilwoman Kathy Rawls said.

"If we borrowed the money, we could go ahead and give Aiken and North Augusta and other little towns their share (of penny tax revenue) how ever the lawsuit comes out, because this is what we promised and we have to keep our word," she said.

If revenue bonds are issued, the county can start paving roads simultaneously instead of working as funds come in over seven years, council members said.

Controversy started to swirl and lawsuits popped up after a mistake was made on the local option sales tax referendum Nov. 7. The ballot stated the projects would be completed in the order they were listed - something council members say was never intended.

Aiken County and the cities of Aiken and North Augusta have filed lawsuits to ensure the tax proceeds are distributed proportionally.

Another lawsuit, asking a judge to make the county stick to the ballot, was filed by His Way Fellowship Church in Graniteville. The church's road is listed to be paved fifth in the county, according to the ballot.

"I think it's very irresponsible for that church and its leadership, its pastor, to pursue that course of action before they gave the county a chance to try to find some alternatives," Mr. Smith said. "... We're trying to see that all the people of the county are served by this local option sales tax and keep our commitment to roads and projects that we said we would accomplish."

His Way Fellowship Pastor Blase Mancine said the lawsuit is about more than just getting their road paved - it's about integrity.

"This is much bigger than Springdale Road," he said. "The bottom line is it's a matter of truth, and when they say they're going to do something, we intend for them to do exactly what they say. We want to make sure that they are keepers of their word.

"Just because they misworded the ballot doesn't mean they should not still adhere to the ballot."

On the ballot, Aiken County projects were listed first, and each road to be paved was listed by its number. Small towns and their projects were listed in alphabetical order. The South Carolina end of Bobby Jones Expressway was listed last.

"If you take it by the literal (priority) that the ballot indicated, that assumes if we have a problem with road one, we can't get to road two until road one is resolved," Mr. Smith said. "If there's a right-of-way issue or anything else, it could stop in its tracks any other project that the 1 cent tax was voted for."

Attorney Robert Bell is soliciting the advice of qualified bond council, he said, to investigate the matter and advise council. He said he expects an answer within a month.

"If this is determined to be feasible and the council decides to move forward with it, it should in effect make all the issues raised by the lawsuits moot since all the funds would be available up front for projects," Mr. Bell said.

The 1 percent local option sales tax was launched Tuesday, raising the sales tax in the county to 6 percent.

Reach Katie Throne at (803) 279-6895.