County council chair speaks on penny tax issue

Darlington County Courthouse Photo by Samantha Lyles

Darlington County Courthouse
Photo by Samantha Lyles

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer,

[Editor’s note: The Darlington County School District has shared a statement regarding comments made during the Sept. 19 Darlington County Council meeting: Statement on the 2016 DCSD Sales Tax Referendum]

At the September 19 regular meeting of Darlington County Council, perhaps the most interesting subject of the evening didn’t come up until meeting’s end when council chair Bobby Hudson addressed the issue of the upcoming penny tax referendum vote and its impact on plans to build a new county courthouse.

When Darlington County voters head to the polls November 6, they will be asked to approve or reject a proposed $60 million bond for the Darlington County School District, financed by renewing the current one-cent sales tax. Approval of this bond would allow the district to replace six aging elementary schools, including Cain, Brunson-Dargan, Washington Street, West Hartsville, Spaulding, and Lamar. But approval would also mean the county would likely not pursue the most viable financing option to replace the leaky and mold-ridden county courthouse.

Council discussed financing options after a June 21 meeting where members of the Capital Project Sales Tax Commission were nominated. At that time, Hudson and then county administrator Terence Arrington told the News and Press that the penny sales tax – which yields about $5 million in revenue per year – was the best chance for financing a new courthouse.

Hudson pointed out that a strict millage cap on property taxes limits Darlington County’s financing options, but that constraint does not apply to the school district.

“(DCSD’s) millage is about .225 and ours is about .167. The advantage they have is they can just raise their millage anytime they want to,” said Hudson. “I know we need schools, but we also need a courthouse and other things.”

Without implementing a capital project-themed penny sales tax, Darlington County is limited to issuing general obligation bond debt amounting to eight percent of the county’s valued assets, which would not cover the estimated $17 million to $30 million cost of a new courthouse.

During closing comments at the Sep. 19 meeting, chairman Hudson responded to a request from council member Mozella “Pennie” Nicholson for clarification on the penny tax issue.

“They (the school board) want to renew their bond, and that penny would continue for fifteen more years,” said Hudson, noting that the county currently receives little tax revenue when compared to local schools and colleges. “Every dollar that comes in, the school district gets 66 cents of it. Florence-Darlington Tech gets twelve percent, and we have to try to do what we can with the rest. We need that one cent to come to the county.”

Nicholson asked whether the county has taken steps to place a referendum for its own penny sales tax on the November ballot. Hudson and interim county administrator Charles Stewart explained that the county did not complete all the necessary steps to get the referendum started. A courthouse advisory committee was formed and began meetings in April, but council did not conduct and pass three required ordinance readings by the August 15 deadline.

Hudson said that county officials and staff met with the school board multiple times over the summer to discuss the possibility of letting the county have a turn at the penny tax, but made little headway in pleading their case.

Hudson added that the school board’s decision to try and renew their claim on the penny tax, which they have collected since 2003, left the county out in the cold. He said that placing competing penny tax initiatives on the ballot leaves open the possibility that both might pass, which would lead to Darlington County having the highest local sales tax in South Carolina – an outcome no one wants.

“We’re still working on it. We haven’t given up. The people of Darlington County are going to be asked to vote whether they want to extend the school board’s penny or not. And we’ll go from there,” said Hudson.

Nicholson said she has heard talk that the school board’s penny tax initiative might not pass, and Hudson added that he has received correspondence from citizens endorsing the need for a new courthouse or a possible combined municipal complex that would house court operations and administrative offices for both the county and the City of Darlington.
“The public is interested in what’s going on. The idea of a city / county complex in Darlington would really solve our problem and we could catch up with the rest of the world and South Carolina,” said Nicholson.

Hudson agreed, saying, “That’s what we were going for.”

Nicholson asked if the school board penny tax does not receive voter approval, when would be the earliest that the county could forward a courthouse-based penny tax referendum. Stewart said there is the possibility of holding a special referendum vote, but speculating about that is moot until the school board tax initiative is approved or rejected by Darlington County voters.

On the regular agenda, council held a public hearing and second reading for Ordinance 16-17, appropriating the thirty percent fee due to Tax Management Associates (TMA) for their work collecting delinquent taxes. The TMA audit figures show the firm collected a total of $142,987 in delinquent taxes from June through September of 2016, meaning a thirty-percent fee of $42,896 is due. No citizen spoke during the public hearing and council voted with no objections to appropriate the fee.

A public hearing was also held for a proposal to lease a T-hangar at the Darlington County Airport to Ritchie Bond for $135 a month. The hangar was sitting empty and not generating any revenue, and leasing it out will help the airport remain in compliance with FAA grant requirements to have 12 aircraft based at the facility.

Council voted unanimously to donate two surplus vehicles to the Town of Lamar. The 2008 Ford F250 and 2011 Ford F150 are slated to be taken off the line at the Darlington County Fire District (DCFD), and interim chief Ricky Flowers told council the county had the option to sell them or donate them.

The DCFD received council clearance to spend $25,312 from their bond funds to purchase emergency lighting for staff vehicles from vendor Dana Safety Supply of Greensboro. Council also cleared the Fire District’s purchase of other equipment (camper shells, winches and brush guards) for $25,003 for staff and command vehicles from Dixie Products, Inc. of Sumter.

Council approved a process change for new construction applications, removing the requirement to obtain a temporary address when construction begins and return to the courthouse for a final address when construction is complete. With this change, a final address will be issued to contractors and/or owners at the time of application, reducing the number of trips they must make to the courthouse and cutting staff workload related to construction permits.

[Editor’s note: The Darlington County School District has shared a statement regarding comments made during the Sept. 19 Darlington County Council meeting: Statement on the 2016 DCSD Sales Tax Referendum]

Author: Duane Childers

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