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Proposed bill could help Aiken County schools

Posted: February 19, 2014 - 12:33pm

COLUMBIA — Tourists, travelers and Augusta residents could start chipping in to help Aiken County build new schools and repair old ones – as much as $6 million per year – if a proposed sales tax passes.

But that idea has a ways to go. State lawmakers have introduced a bill at the request of Aiken County school board members to allow them to present county voters with a one-cent sales tax request in November.

If the bill becomes law, and then if Aiken County voters approve it, the tax could generate an estimated $16 million to $20 million annually to be used on school upgrades.

One-third of that revenue is estimated to come from people who live outside Aiken County.

In January, Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, introduced a bill that would provide the tax option to Aiken County and other counties that do not raise a minimum amount in accommodations taxes. Rep. Roland Smith, R-Warrenville, introduced the House version of the bill.

Aiken County is particularly suited for the tax, where a penny sales tax would raise nearly 20 times what it would in Edgefield County – only $800,000 to $900,000, by one estimate.

About one-fourth of the state’s school districts – spanning about half the counties in the state – have the ability to consider a one-cent sales tax for school construction needs. The pending Aiken County legislation would extend that ability to all districts, said Keith Liner, a school board member from North Augusta.

One of the Senate co-sponsors of the bill is Sen. Harvey Peeler, a Gaffney Republican.

Not a repeat

Things would be very different this time around, said Aiken County School Board Chairwoman Rose-mary English.

“Aiken County, a few years ago, tried to do a referendum for capital improvements, and it was resoundingly defeated,” she said Thursday, referring to the 2010 school construction referendum that voters rejected.

“We went back to the drawing board to see what else we could come up with,” said English. “And this is the result of some of the suggestions and recommendations.” English and Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, pointed to a key difference between the latest attempt and the one that tanked four years ago: it’s a sales tax, while the earlier one would have raised residents’ property taxes.

“That means everybody shares in that, not just Aiken County, but definitely people that come into Aiken County,” added English. “We are a border county, so that is advantageous to us.”

Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, also said a sales tax instead of a property tax increase amounts to a key distinction.

“There are some sore feelings about increasing property taxes,” he said. “And we’ve been able to pick up in the past few months that people feel that it is more fair to have a wide distribution.”

Clyburn said it makes sense. Visitors who come to enjoy the area should support the school district, since local residents who received good schooling have made the area attractive through strong businesses and community institutions.

“We have a lot of tourists in this area,” said Clyburn. “And it’s not that you’re trying to take advantage of them. But they really enjoy some of the qualities that come from a good, quality education ... so they will have the opportunity to contribute.”

Still, Hixon said the public relations campaign will also have to be different this time.

“I have said to the school board if they want this one to pass, they better do a better job of selling it to the public,” said the lawmaker, who is a Realtor.

“I’ve not had anybody come to me and offer me $19 million to go find (them) something and then never look at it. People want to see what they’re going to get, pictures, renderings.”

The House returns this week after a one-week furlough, while the Senate comes back after canceling its work week because of the winter storm conditions.

“Across the state, it’s been gaining some support,” said Liner of the legislation. “I’m optimistic, but until it’s actually signed, a little cautious.”

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