Originally created 03/17/04

Council bickers over ways to use extra penny sales tax



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.

The 1-cent sales tax planning process was dealt another blow Tuesday night, when the Aiken County Council was told that members cannot serve on the committee charged with approving the projects that will be on the ballot.

Aiken County Attorney Robert Bell said the state attorney general ruled in 2002 that the committees should be composed of residents and not elected officials. The county council will hold a special meeting Tuesday to appoint three new members.

A Monday night meeting on the tax erupted into a red-hot debate over the city's wish list, with Councilwoman Lessie Price chiding colleague Dick Smith, who had expressed opposition to spending part of the money on a black history museum and cultural center.

Mr. Smith said the $360,000 proposal is 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 some 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 it a small hunk of the expected 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 referendum in November.

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 the 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.

"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 the 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 when it funded the Aiken Municipal Airport and preserved Hopeland Gardens.

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

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