Originally created 03/17/04

Sales tax sparks debate



AIKEN - Voters haven't even decided whether they'll renew a 1-cent local option sales tax for Aiken County, but that hasn't stopped politicians from squabbling over how the money should be spent.

Monday night's Aiken City Council meeting was the latest venue. In the middle of a red-hot debate over the city's wish list, Councilwoman Lessie Price chided colleague Dick Smith, who had expressed opposition to spending part of the money on a black history museum and cultural center.

Mr. Smith said that the $360,000 proposal was racially divisive and shouldn't be funded with tax dollars.

"Black history is required to be taught in the schools here," he pointed out.

His opposition to the proposal, which has gained support from numerous city leaders, didn't sit well with museum supporters. Nor was it well received by Mrs. Price and Councilwoman Beverly Clyburn, the council's only black members, who support giving the project a small hunk of the anticipated sales tax revenue.

Though it caused the biggest stir, the museum and cultural center initiative is just one of more than 30 proposals the council might fund with a second round of 1-cent sales tax money up for a countywide voter referendum in November.

Council members spent three hours Monday discussing ways to spend the new revenue, including new roads, facilities for the Aiken Department of Public Safety, underground utility lines and a fix for the erosion problem in Hitchcock Woods, among other ideas.

Discussion was at times complicated and testy, and the council didn't rule out anything on its list, which it hopes to have finalized by late May or early June.

If the tax passes, Aiken will get an estimated $28 million. Aiken County would gain the most from the tax, an estimated $51 million, but Aiken County Council has yet to discuss its wish list in depth. County officials are starting with a list of projects valued at about $121 million, including a $500,000 request for the museum and cultural center.

North Augusta, which would get $18.3 million, approved its list unanimously Monday with little debate. Officials there plan to build a new municipal building and make road improvements, among other projects.

"We can fill this room if we want to rezone your property, but when we have $18.3 million to talk about, only a handful of people show up," Mayor Lark Jones said. "I guess we did a pretty good job."

Aiken's proposed black history and cultural center would cost about $1.3 million to complete, said Wade Brodie, a supporter of the idea who also is chairman of the Aiken Corp., a nonprofit economic-development group.

He said Aiken City Council should take a chance on the project, as it did by funding the Aiken Municipal Airport and by preserving Hopeland Gardens.

"Some people just don't have any vision," he said.

Reach Josh Gelinas or Peter Gilchrist at (803) 279-6895.

PENNY PROJECTS: Voters will be asked in November if they want to approve extending the 1-cent sales tax beyond its estimated completion date in 2006. The extension could pay for projects such as road paving in Aiken County, a new municipal building in North Augusta or new parks in the city of Aiken.

By Josh Gelinas and Peter Gilchrist