Charleston County Half-Cent Sales Tax Referendum
Charleston County voters passed a referendum on November 8th, 2016 for a half-cent sales tax increase to fund road projects, mass transit, and the greenbelt program.
The referendum puts the local sales tax rate at 9% — higher than the cities of Atlanta, Charlotte, and New York City — raising $2.1 billion over twenty-five years. This type of tax hits the working poor and seniors on fixed incomes the hardest. Any form of a tax increase must be held to the highest scrutiny by the public to ensure that the list of projects to be funded would positively impact all of Charleston County’s residents, particularly those with the greatest needs.
For months the Coastal Conservation League, other organizations, and the public made a concerted effort to work with County Council and community leaders to identify roads in need of capacity improvements, advocate for more funding to improve CARTA, fund a Bus Rapid Transit route along the I-26 corridor, and protect open space in our rural areas. We were proud of everyone’s work and optimistic that the cost benefit analysis of the half-cent sales tax increase would demonstrate that real solutions to real problems in our community would be addressed.
That was before certain Charleston County Council members began engaging in backroom deals to change the project list and transform the sales tax into a slush fund with zero accountability, transparency, or guarantees that taxpayer money would go towards funding any specific project. Many of the proposed projects listed in the half-cent referendum ordinance are state roads that are supposed to be built and maintained with state dollars. The State has ruled that many of these projects are too expensive and are low-priority, so County Council want local tax payers to foot the bill instead.
Among other changes made to the ordinance after it passed third reading at County Council, the line item specifically allocating funding for mass transit (including CARTA and the Bus Rapid Transit project) was mysteriously deleted — and later added back in the form of a toothless, non-binding resolution. Further, Chairman Elliott Summey promised $150 million to projects that the State was supposed to pay for (with zero public notice or input) in an attempt to resurrect the controversial I-526 extension project.
Local elected officials ultimately rejected this proposal in the days leading up to November 8th and publicly promised that they would make sure the half-cent dollars get put towards the project listed in the ordinance. The referendum passed by a mere 5,000 votes.
The half-cent funds are once again threatened by the specter of I-526. Just a month after the referendum passed, Chairman Summey and Mayor Tecklenburg stood before the members of the State Transportation Infrastructure Bank (STIB) promising that they have the votes to allocate the $350 million shortfall to construct the 526 extension using local and regional funds. Chairman Summey has pledged $150 million will come from the county, the only source for that much money is from the half-cent sales tax.
To read more about the proposed I-526 extension and how Charleston’s elected officials are trying to use the recently passed half-cent sales tax referendum to fund the project, click here.