Savannah River Site employee Matt Kolinoski admitted there are many great places to live in Aiken County.
But, he said, there is a very good reason he has been a resident of Columbia County, located a few miles away on the Georgia side of the river. He's lived there for the past 10 years and intends on raising his 5-year-old child in that county's school systems.
“I wish I was a little bit closer to work, but I sacrifice a little bit of driving and time to live in a nicer area,” Kolinoski said. “And I'm not taking anything away from Aiken. It's a nice place, too. Columbia County just seems to be an up-and-coming community.”
Last week, Kolinoski could be found playing soccer in Evans Towne Center Park – an already well-received facility that Columbia County is still improving. Right outside of the construction site hangs a sign that reads, “Evans Towne Center Park Playground Expansion: Your Sales Tax Dollars at Work.”
In terms of growth, Aiken County has not kept up with Columbia County or Lexington County in South Carolina.
Both counties have been very successful, especially in comparison to the recent Regional Economic Benchmarking Report for Aiken County that states that Aiken County is approaching zero growth.
The information may be enough for residents to consider why Aiken County is stagnating and how tax rates could be playing a large role in the lack of the county's progression.
USC Aiken business professors Dr. Clifton Jones and Dr. Sanela Porca presented the report for Aiken County to the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors in mid-May.
The study highlighted several points of interest in Aiken, including the fact that its growth rate has been dropping over the past several years.
In fact, Aiken County has not seen more than 1 percent growth since 2010.
Meanwhile, Columbia County has been averaging nearly 3 percent growth each year since 2000.
The Aiken Standard sizes up how Aiken County compares to Lexington and Columbia counties and the differences in how all three approach tax investments in their communities.
What the numbers really mean
While many will look at the millage rate to determine economic investment, a better figure is the taxes paid as a share of the home value.
The number comes from the average amount of taxes paid divided by the average price of a home.
It essentially shows how much the residents of each county are investing into their own community.
According to numbers from the Brookings Institute – a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, D.C. – the share of home value numbers from 2007 to 2011 highlight Aiken's deficiency.
Aiken County residents paid an average of $588 in property taxes while the average home in the county is valued at $122,300. That gave Aiken a share of home value percentage of 0.48 percent or 48 cents per $1,000 of home value.
By comparison, Columbia County's rate was significantly higher at 0.91 percent, with residents paying $1,548 in property taxes yearly and the average cost of a home standing at $169,600. That equates to 91 cents per $1,000 of home value or 90 percent more than Aiken County.
Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce President and CEO David Jameson recently led a group to visit Columbia County's school system and facilities, and he said the quality of those schools and the Columbia County community have benefitted from the larger amount of tax revenue, which is why Columbia County is on the rise.
“Columbia County is investing in its future by investing in schools,” Jameson said. “This started 10 years ago, and the investment is yielding dividends for their economy now. Like it or not, families are attracted to new schools.”
Lexington County's rate was also higher than Aiken's at 0.55 percent. Residents paid $757 in property taxes. That would equate to 55 cents per $1,000 of home value or 15 percent more than Aiken County.
Comparing the average Aiken County home value of $122,300, whose resident currently pays $588 in property taxes, in Columbia County the same household would incur $1,113 in property taxes or $525 more per year. Moving the same house to Lexington County would cost the homeowner $673 in property taxes, or $85 more per year.
Dawn Kasserman with Aiken Properties said location is the first thing a buyer looks for when purchasing a home.
“If you're buying a house, people are looking at the school systems and they're checking for the positives of a community. And if they don't see that, they're moving on,” she said.
Columbia County tax payoff
Columbia County's continued use of both Georgia's penny sales tax and the Education Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax, or ESPLOST, have proven to be beneficial.
The ESPLOST has been around since 1997 and has helped build five new schools in Columbia County since 2009, with plans to add two new elementary schools and a middle school before 2017.
But it's not just the school system that keeps residents flocking to Columbia County.
Community and Leisure Services Director Barry Smith said the quality of life in the area makes it attractive.
Smith said over the past two years, the County's premier park – Evans Towne Center Park – has built an amphitheater for events and has added on to its already large playground facilities.
“Our playground was already pricey, but so well-received that we're adding on, and the playground alone will be to the tune of $750,000,” Smith said.
The various parks in the county provide bike rental services, numerous events, concerts and attract national attention – including ESPN televised fishing programs.
The best part, Smith said, is that all of the development is paid for by SPLOST – which differs from ESPLOST in that it is used for community infrastructure improvements – and the residents are the ones who recognized the importance of investing in their community.
“The citizens are voting on these things, and that certainly engages them to use the facilities, so it really works as a win-win,” Smith added.
Lexington County tax payoff
Lexington County also has progressed. Its implementation of the penny sales tax has allowed Lexington School District 1 to improve 16 schools and build five additional schools from 2008 to 2013.
The district's website reported that its 2009 graduates earned more than $26 million in scholarships based on academic achievements.
Mary Beth Hill, the chief communications officer for the district, said the school system's dedication can be noted in its spending.
“Lexington County School District One spends almost its entire budget, 86 percent, on instruction,” Hill said. “Our district puts children and learning first.”
Much like Columbia County, Lexington County's parks and recreation have multiple activities for residents.
The organization is titled the Lexington County Recreation & Aging Commission, which is an effort to keep all ages involved in various activities.
The county has a variety of youth sports, including baseball, basketball, football, soccer, softball, tennis, lacrosse and track and field.
In addition, the program offers several classes at the different senior centers including painting, Zumba, weights and senior sports games activities.
Aiken County taxes
As far as Aiken County taxes, county residents pay property taxes on real estate and motor vehicles, including boats, motorcycles, etc.
They also pay a 1 percent Capital Projects Sales Tax for select capital projects.
Aiken County also operates under a property tax millage that includes small millage rates for solid waste collection, road maintenance, debt service and Aiken Technical College and USC Aiken.
Other than that, there are no other significant tax revenue streams for Aiken County.
By comparison, South Carolina as a whole pays much less in taxes than the rest of the country.
For example, the Brookings study ranks Aiken County as the 2,834th county in the nation in taxes as a share of home value and ranks Lexington County as the 2,615th county. Columbia County is ranked considerably higher at 1,849th
The S.C. General Assembly recently voted in favor of allowing a penny sales tax referendum for Aiken County, which, if passed by voters, would go toward the needs of the school district.
Will Williams, president and CEO of the Aiken Economic Development Partnership, said the sales tax would be beneficial for Aiken County.
“Newer, more modern facilities are long overdue in our county, and the one cent sales tax for school construction is the best and least intrusive way to help us attract new, working families to Aiken,” he said.
Takes money to make money
Jones and Porca said the solution is to make the necessary investments that neighboring counties have made in their respective communities.
The goal, they said in the study, is to attract current and new employees to Aiken through better infrastructure and facilities.
“Improving our roadways and highway infrastructure to alleviate traffic congestion, providing more public gathering spaces (“green spaces”) and residential options downtown, improving accessibility for pedestrians and bicyclists throughout the area with new trails and pathways, and replacing or renovating our aging public school facilities are all possible ways of making our community more attractive to these workers,” they wrote.
Derrek Asberry is a reporter with the Aiken Standard.