2004-10-22 / On Second Thought

One–cent sales tax increase in Richland County gets us....what?

By John Temple Ligon

Don Weaver
Don Weaver

Last Thursday, October 14, in the morning, Don Weaver said the one–cent sales tax increase in Richland County was OK with him. Weaver is president of the SC Association of Taxpayers and is a former objector to the one–cent increase in the Richland County sales tax. A supporter now, Weaver likes the feature of a 100% property tax rollback.

The property owners and logically their tenants should appreciate the $62 million in property tax rollback after the first year of the rollback.

The arithmetic calls for a wash: What’s collected in the sales tax increase is dedicated entirely to a reduction in property taxes. The county is diversifying its sources of revenue. That’s all.

The regret here is the absence of any improvement in the quality of life, any gain in convenience, safety, culture, or whatever makes urban living urbane.

In Austin TX sometimes an unfair comparison because Austin is well ahead of Columbia in just about every category. They collect a one–cent sales tax dedicated not to property tax rollback but to mass transit.

They began collecting about 15 years ago, and they suffered an embarrassment of riches, so they reduced the take for transit to three– fourths of a penny. This year they are collecting over $142 million in the one–cent sales tax, and they intend to start using all of it for mass transit. There is a referendum on November 2 for a commuter fixed–rail line.

Whether the fixed–rail line referendum passes or not, the tax take is the same. There is no need for additional taxes to carry the additional transit. It’s all figured in already. The number of buses in Austin on the street at peak demand stays at about 340, ten times Columbia’s 34.

Austin’s transit service area population is just over twice our transit service area population. If the arithmetic held, a Columbian might imagine Austin would have at most 80 buses on the street, while in fact they have 340.

Ever since Bobby Inman put together the high–tech compound to develop the next generation of computer chips over 20 years ago, attracting IBM and developing Dell, Austin has evolved as a technology center besides keeping its government and education base.

After years of high–tech development and outrageous population growth, nothing like anything ever seen around here, Austin’s newcomers tired of the ragged bus system. In 1989, Capital Metro took it over, started collecting the one–cent sales tax, and ran buses for free for five quarters.

While they collected tax money and got organized and set their future goals, Capital Metro, Austin’s transit authority, raised the annual ridership in two years following 1989 from 5 million to 30 million. Here in Columbia we managed to run off half the ridership from 1982 to 1992, as bragged in the SCANA annual report of 1992.

While we were moving backwards and while SCANA was bragging in their annual report, as if that were an accomplishment the shareholders wanted to see, Austin was moving forward.

Now that we appear to hesitate on the edge of an alternative tax collection, we need to ask ourselves, “What are we really getting? Anything?” Now that we are also on the brink of a technology economy, thanks to USC’s planned Research Campus and Hydrogen Bob’s city support, is it not time to take another look at our mobility?

Look at Austin.

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