Penny tax measures find meager support

in Bill Rauch/Contributors/The Bluffton News/Voices by

By Bill Rauch

Before 2016’s penny sales tax questions are even on the ballot both look DOA with the voters.

The school district’s ask looks preliminarily like it will be for $282 million over ten years while the county will be seeking about $120 million over four years. Neither list will be final for another month or so.

But the problem is neither group seems to care much whether their measure passes. County Council members say things like “Our approach is to let the voters decide.” Or, “Well this is the list the committee came up with.” Or, “Some of this list is pure pork.” While some School Board members say things like, “Nobody’s going to vote for it because nobody trusts the Superintendent.”

Why bother? Why encourage the voters to get into the habit of voting these measures down? If it’s a dud, it’s not too late to jettison the whole program.

A major – but certainly not the only – culprit is Hilton Head Island. Once Beaufort County’s financial powerhouse, its position as such is weakening. But its leadership speaks more stridently than ever.

For the county’s penny sales tax measure Hilton Head proposed – among other improvements – an “Arts, Entertainment & Cultural Campus” for $6.2 million. But there’s been no study made nor plan developed for where this campus would go, what would be there, or how it would operate. (The Town’s initial proposed penny sales tax number was $30 million for this mysterious facility which some say could cost more than twice that.) Citing unknown annual operating costs and whether the events at the campus could cover them, and concerns about more traffic, the Hilton Head Island-based opponents of the proposal have seemed to outnumber its supporters. But the Town’s leadership has pressed on.

Sources: Beaufort County and the Town of Hilton Head Island Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports
Sources: Beaufort County and the Town of Hilton Head Island Comprehensive Annual Financial Reports

Maybe we should be grateful Hilton Head didn’t want $6 million for the “Iron Man” triathlon that would shut down U.S. 278 and paralyze the town. That was the proposal that started the dust-up between the Mayor and the Sheriff that was the subject of last week’s column here.

Then after the column ran, the Sheriff said after this budget season he won’t negotiate with Hilton Head over their law enforcement-related reimbursement to the county any more. Next year, he says, he’ll leave that chore to the County Council.

The Sheriff’s right to do so. As the county is publicly giving him his budget with one hand, they quietly get him by the throat with their other and make him give Hilton Head more … and more … and more. It’s been that maneuver, as I wrote last week, that has enabled Hilton Head to get the sweetheart deal of the century from the Sheriff’s Office such that the Town can devote just 9 percent of their general fund to law enforcement while the other municipalities spend between 56 and 66 percent of their general fund dollars on law enforcement.

Now, with the decline of Hilton Head’s financial preeminence the days of that charade appear finally to be coming to an end.

If Hilton Head’s gone rogue, Beaufort’s approach is just cynical. Once again in an effort to appear to give Mossy Oaks something when in fact they are giving nothing, the City Council is dangling “Southside Park improvements” before the Mossy Oaks voters. But, tellingly, they coupled that ask with “Waterfront Park and Marina improvements” and put all that down on the list for $4 million which is approximately the cost of the day dock expanded to the park promenade and some needed marina and mooring field improvements.

Southside’s still exactly where it’s been for eight years: way down the list. First the mayor tried to sell Mossy Oaks’ 18+ acre park to a real estate developer. When that idea flopped he decided someone should plow it up and farm it. No kidding. Finally the city put in some fences for dog runs, and one lonesome bench. If you go, take a chair … and your snake-boots. The most beautiful and unheralded oak grove in northern Beaufort County that dominates the park on its Waddell Road side, hasn’t been either burned or bush hogged in recent memory.

Then there’s the false premise that underlies the school district’s proposed list. With excess capacity north of the Broad River why are we proposing to build new schools south of the Broad? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to readjust the districts? That’s what school districts everywhere else do … except when there is a sacrosanct line, which there is apparently here. Where is it written that children who live south of the Broad may not attend schools that are located north of the Broad? But that is the apparent policy upon which the district’s preliminary proposed projects list is predicated.

Or is it, as School Board Member Michael Rivers likes to say, “They draw that line because Bluffton wants us to help pay to build their schools just so in a decade they can break the county school system in half at the Broad River, and then with Hilton Head they go their own way.”

There are of course always detractors for any ballot measure. The odd thing about this year is, at least so far there are no cheerleaders.

Well there’s one, sort of. The book’s author likes the book. Asking for their support for his committee’s list, County Sales Tax Commission Chairman Mike Sutton told the county council, “I think it’s a very good package to offer the public for their support.”

A reporter, publisher, ghostwriter and author, Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at