The Daily Journal: Penny-tax proposal stalls
Officials to revisit referendum initiative in 2010 

By Carlos Galarza (Contact / Staff Bio)

SENECA — State Rep. Bill Sandifer says he is getting an earful from constituents who tell him they are tired of being asked to approve a 1 cent sales tax to be used for capital projects.

Sandifer, R-Seneca, is sympathetic to voters weary of sales-tax referendums. As a result, he introduced legislation this year in Columbia that when a referendum is voted down — as Oconee County did in 2006 — county officials would have to skip a voting cycle before another penny tax referendum could be presented again to the voters.

Oconee County voters don’t have to wait for Sandifer’s bill to be approved to get relief.

The Oconee County Capital Projects Commission unanimously voted Tuesday evening to postpone another referendum until 2010.

Commission members separately came to the same decision after consulting with their elected officials: the timing is wrong.

Sandifer, R-Seneca, could have told commission members the same thing.

“The people I’ve talked to tell me, ‘Let’s get over a vote before we do it again,’” Sandifer said. “I’ve had a number of people contact me. They tell me it seems as if we’re voting on the same thing continuously. It’s like you’ve got to vote on it until you pass it.”

The Commission, which represents the interests of the Oconee County Council and the municipalities, agreed they wouldn’t mind staying together as a group, if council so desires. The group’s task is to come up with a list of projects that would be funded by the penny tax if voters approve it. The council must approve the projects chosen by the commission.

Commission Co-Chair Julian Stoudemire made it clear that none of the members are looking for work and would only stay on at the pleasure of council.

“We need more time so we can get projects that voters will support,” Stoudemire said. “People will support you if you give them something to support you on.”

County Attorney Brad Norton said at the meeting that there is nothing in the law that prohibits the commission from staying together and planning the 2010 initiative.

In the 2006 referendum, voters were asked to OK a penny tax that would have raised $53 million to fund more than 40 projects.

Many blamed the extensive list of projects, on which every city and almost all unincorporated areas of the county would get something, for the proposal’s rejection by voters.

Oconee County Economic Development Commission Director Jim Alexander said before the meeting that other factors played a part in voters rejecting the 2006 initiative — namely the property tax reassessment taking place and the state pushing through a penny tax of its own.

Alexander said this year many are saying it’s not a good time for a referendum on the penny tax because the economy is tough.

“It’s hard anytime to pass this,” Alexander said. “I personally hope they’ll do (the referendum). You only have so much time to inform the public of what we’re going to do.”

Commission members agreed that when a new proposal is put to the voters, the commission must come up with a short list of projects. Also, they say a better job has to be done to let voters know that the tax would sunset after the target amount of money needed to fund the projects is reached, and that about 25 percent or more of the tax is actually paid by people visiting the county.

Commission member DeWitt Martin, who represents Seneca, said two projects — a countywide recreation center and a new library in Seneca — are getting broad support.

In the meantime, Sandifer said he would continue to promote his bill in the Legislature that would give everyone involved with the penny tax initiative — including voters — a much needed cooling off period.

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