Three years after a failed public referendum that would have increased property taxes for facility needs, Aiken County School Board members are seeking another avenue for 2014 – a referendum that, if approved, would provide a penny sales tax instead.
“A sales tax would be an easier proposition for voters,” said Board member Tad Barber. “The scale of the project would be reduced and easier to sell as a shared cost.”
Such a referendum would take place in November 2014. The School Board has set up a timeline that would include proposed projects for new construction and general maintenance, construction methods and a referendum campaign next summer.
While the Board members would determine the funds sought through the sales tax endeavor, they have mentioned an annual revenue stream of $18 million to $20 million for a fixed number of years.
The existing dilemma is that the School District currently has no authority to call for such an election. Ironically, 22 South Carolina counties have that option, as well as those across the Savannah River. Some have taken that capability to call for referendums and have gotten the support of taxpayers. Twenty of those counties were “grandfathered” into that capability, while the remaining counties cannot do so under existing state law.
For complex reasons, the Aiken School Board will need help from the Aiken County Legislative Delegation and, ultimately, the S.C. General Assembly.
“Aiken doesn't have that ability, and it all depends on how the legislature would deal with it,” said School Board attorney Bill Burkhalter.
The Board members probably won't know anything from state lawmakers until the spring. Trustee Keith Liner is concerned the General Assembly is in the second year of a two-year cycle. The S.C. House and Senate have yet to finish legislation from 2013, and that could hinder efforts to get a new bill through the process.
Still, Liner is hopeful through the efforts of S.C. Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, who has done a lot of work in determining how to approach such a legislative initiative. He is exploring this option for Aiken County, he said, so its residents will have the choice to pay for school capital funding through sales taxes instead of a property tax.
Columbia County (in Georgia) has a penny sales tax for school improvements and new construction, “and they have used it well,” Young said. “The reality is that we've got Columbia County to the west of us and Lexington County above us with that option. Aiken County ought to have this referendum option instead of only a property tax.”
Liner, Barber and another Board member, Richard Hazen, agree that the Board will have to be more aggressive in campaigning for a sales tax referendum next summer if they get that opportunity. Improved school facilities are a vital economic development tool, Hazen said, especially at a time when the economy is still trying to bounce back.
After his election to the Board in 2012, Barber can share his own experiences during the past year. He considers his visits to schools eye-opening. While the older facilities are still functional, they still lack security, technology and other needs that modern schools have now.
“It's nothing more than getting to these schools and seeing some of the things they're dealing with,” said Barber. “You see something on the inside, and you get an in-depth perspective.”
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.