County Council appoints courthouse sales tax commission
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Darlington County Council convened a special meeting June 21 to appoint members for a Capital Project Sales Tax Commission related to financing a new county courthouse. This commission is a separate entity from the Courthouse Construction Committee, and represents a legal necessity if the county is to move forward with a public referendum for a new penny sales tax.
Currently the Darlington County School District receives revenues from a local penny sales tax amounting to about $5 million per year.
At the first Courthouse Construction Committee meeting in April, Sen. Gerald Malloy suggested speaking with the Darlington County School District about ending the county’s current penny sales tax for education and replacing it with a penny tax for the courthouse project. Malloy noted that the DCSD tax was passed around 2003-2004 and the school district has nearly paid off their bond debt.
County Council chairman Bobby Hudson told the News and Press that he believes it is necessary for the school district to end their penny sales tax arrangement before the county requests a penny tax to pay for a courthouse. Hudson said if Darlington County had two concurrent penny sales taxes, there would likely be push back from the South Carolina Legislature.
“If the school district stays with their penny and we get our penny, we’d be the highest (local sales tax) in the state,” said Hudson, adding that he believed the DCSD tax is due to expire anyway in 2017.
“We supported them (DCSD) when they wanted to get their penny, now they should support us,” added council member Mozella “Pennie” Nicholson.
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.”
Last year, Darlington County Council contracted with Michael Baker International (MBI) to conduct a study on the possibility of building a modern, secure court and administrative facility near the current courthouse on the Darlington Public Square. Since its founding, Darlington County has built five courthouses: in 1785, 1825, 1873, 1904, and 1964. The early structures were all lost (through fires, deterioration, etc.) and the current ’64 courthouse has aged badly, with dated HVAC systems failing and water penetration and mold throughout the building.
Security issues also abound, evidenced by two incidents this year: on May 16 a prisoner escaped custody and fled the building, and on April 18 a vehicle crashed into the external facade causing a driver fatality.
Borrowing limits restrict Darlington County’s general obligation bond indebtedness to 8-percent of asset valuation, so a capital project sales tax is one of the only feasible options on the table. MBI gave a rough estimate of $17 to $30 million (depending on how many agencies will occupy the complex) to build a new courthouse / municipal center.
Council voted to appoint Hudson, vice chair Robbin Brock, and council member Bobby Kilgo to the new commission, along with Hartsville Mayor Mel Pennington, Darlington Mayor Gloria Hines, and Society Hill Mayor Tommy Bradshaw.
It remains to be seen if this commission will actually become an acting body this year, or if this is just a necessary formality. If some arrangement between the school board and county is not reached, the commission’s real work may not begin until the DCSD tax naturally expires.
“If the school board doesn’t get off of the existing penny, then the county cannot get on. But we still have to do this preliminary work, to appoint this committee, to even get the vote on (the November ballot),” said County Administrator Terence Arrington.