Florence mayor asks SC for help with roads

February 27, 2019

FLORENCE, S.C. – Florence Mayor Stephen J. Wukela asked a South Carolina Senate subcommittee for help repairing the city’s roads Tuesday morning.

Wukela testified before the Senate Finance Committee’s Sales and Income Tax Subcommittee regarding Senate Bill 171, which would allow cities and towns to pass ordinances that would place a question on the next general election ballot following the passage of the ordinance regarding a municipal capital project sales tax.

Wukela, a Democrat, emphasized Florence’s need for funding to address capital needs, in particular road maintenance, to the committee. He testified that Florence has no revenue stream to address road maintenance. Florence County assesses a road-maintenance fee. The mayor contended that, although the majority of those county road-maintenance tax funds are generated within the city limits, Florence County spends them primarily within the unincorporated areas of the county.

The Sales and Income Tax Subcommittee is headed by Sen. Ronnie Cromer, a Republican representing Senate District 18, which includes eastern Union County, Newberry County and northern Lexington County.

State Sen. Hugh K. Leatherman Sr., a Republican from Florence County who heads the Senate Finance Committee, also reportedly attended the hearing, sitting behind the mayor during his testimony.

Senate Bill 171 is sponsored by Republican Sens. Greg Hembree, whose district includes a portion of Dillon County, and Ross Turner, whose district includes central southeastern Greenville County. The bill was pre-filed on Dec. 12, 2018, and was referred to the Senate Finance Committee on Jan. 8.

The bill would allow municipalities to submit a specific list of projects to voters. The list of acceptable projects in the bill includes tax credits, roads, government buildings, water and sewer projects, flood control, beach access and renourishment, dredging, joint projects with counties, special purpose districts, or school districts, or any combination thereof. The bill requires at least 20 percent of revenues collected to go toward tax credits.

Its companion House bill is H.B. 3833. House Bill 3833 is sponsored by Rep. Jason Elliott, a Republican also from Greenville County. The bill was introduced on Jan. 31 and is in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Florence City Manager Drew Griffin recently spoke about a potential day of reckoning for the city regarding repairs to its streets. He said that since the state Department of Transportation quit accepting streets not built by the DOT into its system in the 1980s, the city has acquired several miles of streets. According to city estimates, Florence would need approximately $2 million to $3 million per year for road maintenance on those streets.

“General election” is further defined by the bill to mean the Tuesday following the first Monday in November in any year.

If passed by voters, the sales tax would go into effect on May 1 following the election.

Florence County has had two capital project sales taxes. One passed in 2007 and one passed in 2013. The county sales tax will come off the books in 2020. It is not yet known whether the county council will pass an ordinance to hold another referendum for another capital project sales tax in 2020.

Wukela said the second Florence County sales tax generated $140 million, of which approximately $100 million is generated within the city limits. However, the mayor said that of the $100 million generated by city taxpayers, the county allocated only $20 million to the city, all of which the city used for road maintenance.

In the 2018 general election, Darlington County voted down a capital project sales tax to construct a new judicial center in downtown Darlington.

Currently, South Carolina Code allows counties to submit a referendum to the voting public to approve a specific list of projects to be built with the money collected. The capital project sales tax is also known informally as the penny sales tax because it adds 1 percent of sales tax to every dollar spent or, in simpler terms, one penny.

Like a similar bill last year, the Senate bill is expected to make its way to the full Finance Committee. If approved there, the bill would go to the full Senate for a vote. The House bill likewise would need to be approved.

If the bills are passed by the General Assembly, they would go to Gov. Henry McMaster’s office for his signature. If signed by McMaster, the city of Florence would have to enact an ordinance, which would take at least two meetings, which would then submit the question to voters at the next general election.

Wukela said he asked for amendments and the bill would be held over for those amendments before going to the full Senate for a vote. He asked for an amendment that would prevent the double taxation by both the city and the county with separate capital project sales taxes.