Passage of Kathy Rawls’s resolution opposing Aiken County’s participation in the North Augusta Tax Increment Financing plan surprised most observers.
The 4-2 vote in favor of the resolution on March 5, with two abstentions, stunned both supporters and opponents of the project.
Only through such a resolution could County Council stop participation in “Project Jackson.” No action would have been construed as consent.
With one seat vacant, those counting heads believed that, at most, only four would support Rawls’s resolution: Rawls, Scott Singer, LaWana McKenzie and Willar Hightower.
This left four assumed to be in opposition to any such resolution: Chairman Ronnie Young, Chuck Smith, Sandy Haskell and Andrew Siders. It was thought the resolution would fail 4 to 4, and Aiken County would therefore participate in the proposed TIF.
But Young and Siders abstained, allowing the resolution to pass.
“I didn’t know there would be a vote on it that evening,” said Siders afterward.
“I felt like we were forced into a vote prematurely. I wasn’t comfortable with the numbers and I needed more information.”
During Council’s spirited debate, Smith was the TIF’s most forceful and determined advocate.
Smith focused on the project’s total investment, the number of jobs it would create, the sales tax revenue it would generate and its similarities to other economic development initiatives such as the fee-in-lieu of taxes agreement with Bridgestone.
With continued job losses at SRS, Smith thinks the project is critical. “We pride ourselves on economic development,” he said. “Why wouldn’t we support this?”
Smith’s arguments, however, swayed neither the four members supporting Rawls’s resolution nor the two who abstained. Their concerns revolved around three major issues.
First, the project’s reliance on the original 1996 assessed values for the TIF District was condemned. Tax revenues from parcels within the TIF district developed since 1996 were included in the funding scheme.
This was considered inequitable by several councilmen, who favored revising the assessed values in the district to 2012 levels.
McKenzie said that among her constituents “feelings were strong against use of the 1996 rates.”
Rawls vehemently objected to this detail: “Not including Hammonds Ferry is like taking the Town of Wagener off the tax rolls … I think it’s highway robbery to re-TIF something that’s already built out.”
This was the crux of Singer’s objections since it “weakens the county tax base … and is a terrible precedent.” If the assessed values were reset to 2012 levels, Singer said he could support an amended plan.
Siders cited this as a factor in his abstention. “Resetting the assessed values to 2012 would have made me more comfortable with the proposal.”
Second, the viability of the proposed baseball stadium was questioned, as was the use of tax revenues to build it.
“The ballpark is a big issue,” said Rawls. “It’s hard to see how moving the team across the river would make any difference.”
Siders was similarly concerned. “Is the ballpark really such a great idea? Relying solely on the Green Jackets for revenue is unwise.”
Third, comparisons between the TIF and other fee-in-lieu projects were rejected.
“Unlike Bridgestone, the tax dollars aren’t going to the greater good. They’re going to this one project,” said Singer.
“This isn’t at all like a fee-in-lieu,” said Rawls. “In a fee-in-lieu, at least industry pays some tax. In this proposal, the TIF would take all of the income for several years.”
Hightower simply opposes TIFs for anything other than industrial development.
“Industrial growth is pure economic development,” contends Hightower. “It creates jobs and brings in money from outside the county. I oppose TIFs for retail and other nonindustrial development.”
Hightower is consistent on this point, as he voted against the 2011 Town of Jackson TIF to build a grocery store on precisely these grounds.
At present, the City of North Augusta has three options: scrap the project, go forward without county participation, or amend the proposal to win County Council approval.
Increasing the assessed values from 1996 levels to 2012 levels could gain votes on Council. But by limiting potential TIF revenues, the time needed to pay off the project would grow.
If, however, the 2012 assessments were coupled with deletion of the stadium, then the numbers could work. The remaining public portions of the project, including the parking garage and conference center, would be viable with reduced TIF revenues.
Furthermore, this combination could gain a needed vote or two on County Council.
The next move is up to North Augusta.
It can either opt for half a loaf or no loaf at all. The full loaf, however, is no longer on the menu.
Gary Bunker is a former member of the Aiken County. He lives in Aiken.
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