Originally created 10/31/04

Many leaders urge support of special tax



AIKEN - Advocates of extending Aiken County's 1-cent sales tax have a couple of convincing arguments they're offering would-be voters as the Nov. 2 election nears.

For example, about 30 percent of the $114 million that the proposed extension is supposed to bring in would come from people outside the county who spend money within it, county estimates show.

That hefty chunk of change would pay for a laundry list of projects that are supposed to improve the county, from paved roads to picnic tables, selections that were cobbled together by a committee appointed by county government and its 10 cities.

There's also the inverse of that equation.

If voters don't pass the tax, officials could be forced to raise taxes elsewhere because of the urgent need for some of the projects the sales tax extension would fund.

"Ultimately, if it doesn't pass there are certain capital projects we're going to have to find an alternative source for, and the alternative source available to county council is property taxes," Aiken County Councilman Scott Singer said.

The construction of new EMS stations on the south side of Aiken and on U.S. Highway 1 in Monetta, and the purchase of new ambulances and squad cars for the Aiken County Sheriff's Office, must be paid for one way or another, Mr. Singer said.

Mr. Singer, council Chairman Ronnie Young and other supporters of the tax have been speaking to civic groups and anyone else who will listen, in part because the current tax hasn't been overwhelmingly popular.

It passed in 2000 by a 51.9 percent to 48.1 percent margin, with 23,992 people voting for and 22,158 against.

It wasn't until the money started rolling in in 2001 that the cities realized they would have to wait for funding because the county had priority.

The county is still waiting on $18.6 million of the $54.6 million the current tax will bring in, probably by early 2006. The cities of New Ellenton, Jackson, Burnettown, Monetta, Perry and Windsor have yet to receive any money.

Many small-town leaders still support the tax because they can't generate the money otherwise and the committee that drafted the referendum listed small towns first on this year's ballot, so they'll get money first.

There are other obstacles, including the sheer length of the ballot question, which is seven pages long.

The question was similar in length in 2000, when 6,000 people who voted on other issues didn't even answer the question, said Stuart Bedenbaugh, the executive director of Aiken County's Voter Registration and Elections office.

Poll officials will pass out copies of the question to voters before they cast ballots, which could help ease any possible confusion, Mr. Bedenbaugh said.

The county council avoided a protest over the tax earlier this year when it removed a black history cultural center and historic railroad depot worth hundreds of thousands of dollars from the list. Both projects are being pushed by private groups.

The move didn't sit well with county Councilman Willar Hightower, who supports the black history center and wanted more projects in his district funded with the proposed extension.

"The process the county went through to use up its $50 million was at best helter-skelter," Mr. Hightower said. "There's no rush."

He said he hasn't campaigned against the extension, but "if anybody asks my opinion, I tell them."

If the question doesn't pass, the county must wait more than a year to put the issue back before voters.

Mr. Young said he believes voters will see the bright side of things.

"I think this time, with the list of things that will be done and the list of things that have been done, we'll push through," he said.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113 or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.

who gets funds

Aiken County voters will be asked on Tuesday's ballot if they want to continue the county's 1-cent sales tax. While the question is one line long, the list of projects to be paid for with the $114 million the tax generates takes up seven pages.

Below is the amount of money the county and each of its 10 cities are supposed to receive, based on population and sales tax revenue. The tax would pay for a wide range of projects, including paved roads, baseball fields and playgrounds. A list of the projects can be accessed at www.aikencountysc.gov and will be available to residents at their respective precincts before voting.

Money from the tax will be distributed to the following cities in the order that they're listed:
Burnettown: $1.04 million
Jackson: $707,000
Monetta: $99,000
New Ellenton: $1.3 million
Perry: $84,600
Salley: $161,000
Wagener: $833,000
Windsor: $54,300
North Augusta: $19.4 million
Aiken: $30 million
Aiken County: $50.5 million

Aiken County and the cities of Burnettown, Jackson, Monetta, New Ellenton, Perry, Salley and Wagener also will receive a percentage of the last $10.3 million that the tax generates.