The Rauch Report
By Bill Rauch
In adversity there’s opportunity.
The recent nepotism scandal and its perceived cover-up at the Beaufort County School District presents Beaufort County the opportunity to actually get a penny sales tax passed in November, 2016 when before the scandal the chances were dim indeed.
Don’t get me wrong. The sides are splintered today, but there’s an obvious place for them to come together, by say New Year’s, and with some solid lawyering and political leadership they will.
Hilton Head County Councilman Stu Rodman hinted at the unusual “all together” place at County Council’s Finance Committee meeting on Monday. But the proposal is so unusual no one at the meeting even asked him to flesh it out.
Here’s where the various sides are today. School District officials now say a new school bond referendum is a non-starter. They are instead considering a 15 year penny sales tax to raise the money they need for schools, District Superintendent Jeff Moss said Monday. There’s a $450 million price tag on that one, and it’s Dead on Arrival.
Meanwhile the municipalities, with the exception of Hilton Head, want to reprise the failed Local Option Sales Tax that would provide to them a permanent dribble of money they can use for facilities maintenance and other small projects, Beaufort County Finance Committee Chairman Jerry Stewart reported to his committee Monday. That one’s DOA too because it won’t get the votes on County Council to put it on the ballot.
And then there’s the Town of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County who are moving forward in tandem with capital improvements sales tax proposals for parks, roads and bridges. By not voting to stop their exploratory committee from exploring these options County Council signaled Monday they are looking in that direction.
Some members like Rick Caporale and Brian Flewelling say go ahead and put all three measures — schools, roads, and facilities maintenance — on the ballot and let the voters decide which one or ones they feel like paying for.
But the grand master on the County Council, Bill McBride from St. Helena Island, knows given three choices the voters will vote “No” to all three, and he said so on Monday.
If it is kids or cars or facilities maintenance for pennies on the November, 2016 ballot, all three will surely crater. But kids and cars together in one measure with the right campaign behind it might just pass.
Here are the politics. In the last statewide election, the 2014 gubernatorial contest, 37 percent of the votes in Beaufort County came from north of the Broad River with 32 percent coming from Hilton Head Island and 31 percent coming from the Bluffton/Sun City precincts. So any sales tax measure will have to offer something worth their paying for to each of these three disparate groups.
Bluffton badly needs a new middle school and a new elementary school now, and Hilton Head needs to expand its high school and middle school facilities soon. However, north of the Broad River the needs for new classrooms are far less pressing.
So Bluffton votes for kids and Hilton Head casts half its vote for kids. But Hilton Head’s leadership needs hurricane evacuation relief as well. In particular they legitimately say they need a wider bridge to replace the Graves Bridge that connects the island via US 278 to the mainland. So they cast the other half of their vote for cars.
Then, if they can’t have the dribble from the Local Option Sales Tax, the leaders from the northern part of the county have said they want their crumbling roads and sidewalks repaired, and maybe in Port Royal some new sidewalks. Furthermore, Beaufort wants a downtown public parking structure that its leadership will legitimately argue will benefit not just the downtown merchants but visitors to downtown who come in from Lady’s Island, St. Helena Island, Shell Point, Burton and beyond. So that’s a vote and a half for cars.
Faced with these political realities the crucial question for the School Board will be: “To get what we need for the kids are we willing to bridge the traditional divide and partner with Bluffton and Hilton Head to weave a few badly-needed schools into an intergovernmental agreement, and together bring forward a proposal for the schools that could go before the voters alongside needed roads and bridges as a part of the county’s proposed capital projects penny sales tax?”
That’s the “all together” plan that Councilman Stu Rodman mentioned obliquely on Monday. That’s the kids and cars plan that gets the governments not all that they want, but that which they need.
The catch is to get there requires that everyone work together.