Paying off county debt best and wisest choice
Sunday, March 02, 2014 1:09 AM
Greenwood County government employees, along with current and past members of County Council, have taken their share of hits from the public and in editorials published on this page. Much of the criticism has been deserved, much not.
The hits, as they say, just keep on coming, but with respect to the collection and distribution of the penny sales tax that paid for the new county library and stands ready to pay the costs of federally mandated modifications to Buzzard Roost Dam, the criticism leveled by some county residents is unwarranted.
First, let's get some perspective on the entire project and the birth of the sales tax. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission exercised its power to tell the county it not only had to upgrade the dam's fuse plug, but that it also had to make extensive and highly expensive seismic upgrades to the dam. In essence, the dam had to be shored up in preparation for a cataclysmic earthquake, the likes of which are not uncommon in the Pacific but are highly improbable here, even given the fault line that runs through the region.
County leaders determined the best way to collect the potential millions of dollars needed to refurbish the dam would be to share the burden with those who visit and shop in Greenwood County. Not only would the county's residents raise the capital through a penny sales tax, but also outsiders would help them foot the bill.
To its credit, while collecting the tax to pay for the dam project, County Council folded in the capital costs of building a new library. A new library was already planned, so again, why not let shoppers and visitors help with the cost of construction through the sales tax?
Meanwhile, county leaders opted to joust with the federal government. Believing FERC's seismic requirements for Buzzard Roost Dam were a bit over the top, the county pleaded its case — a yearslong endeavor because, after all, it was battling the feds — and eventually won.
The victory means Greenwood County will now have to spend only about $18 million on fuse plug remediation. It will not have to make additional seismic upgrades, which leaves the county with about $13 million in the account. Residents ought to be cheering county leaders for taking up the fight. And winning. Instead, the criticism and attacks are renewed as some residents claim the sales tax dollars should be reimbursed. Interesting. First of all, by law the county cannot do that, as explained in today's front-page story. Second, without some rather detailed sales receipts from everyone who shopped in Greenwood County during the time the tax was in force, good luck. You can't even get a refund from most stores without a receipt, and they're usually only good for 30 days after purchase.
What is surprising, however, is that county manager Toby Chappell has come under attack for his suggestion the county spend about $10 million from the overage to pay off the county's bonded indebtedness, likely making Greenwood the only debt-free county in the Palmetto State.
Were he to suggest the leftover money be spent on some new capital project, would he not be criticized for wasteful spending? Especially in light of the existing debt?
We know some will say the county should not have levied the tax to begin with since it was already in debt. We get that. Governments do have a knack for getting themselves into debt and then piling more debt on top of that. Dare we point once again to the federal government's example?
We also know some other projects will come along at great expense. That happens as towns, cities and counties grow. Whether the county's voters opt to build a new civic center-like arena, a sports and recreation complex or some other capital expenditure comes along, the need for spending will not cease. That said, however, Chappell's suggestion to pay off the debt makes great sense. And once again, visitors and shoppers will have not only helped us shore up our dam and build a magnificent new library, they will share the burden of paying off our debt — with a few million left in the coffers for future capital expenditures.
Not every county resident and taxpayer will see eye to eye with the county leadership. That cannot be expected. Some see the library as a waste of money, others recognize its value in and to the community. Some will see a need to spend the $13 million overage on another project, while others will simply say the county should halt spending altogether, which sounds nice but is not realistic if the county is to maintain what it has, what services it provides and what will be needed in the future to serve residents and accommodate growth.
But we are scratching our heads and wondering why anyone could not and would not applaud the county leaders for being fiscally responsible enough to have zero debt with the stroke of a pen. We urge the council to heed Chappell's advice.