Lexington: Roads, Taxes and Ignorance

By now, many Lexington residents are aware of the Town Council’s proposal to impose a 2% hospitality tax to fund improvements to three critical intersections.  In addition to newspaper articles and television pieces, the Council held an “educational” meeting on Monday to formally introduce the plan and to get comments and answer questions from the public.

As to be expected, there was opposition to the idea of raising the money through a tax – a vile word to quite a few people.  Truly, taxes are as unwelcome to the citizenry as they are necessary to governing bodies.  A tax is money from voter’s pockets to the general population treasury with the ideal intent to pay for necessary services and infrastructure to benefit everyone.  Politicians are notoriously distrusted with the peoples’ money for well-established historical reasons; too often the money has been misspent or used to fund items that benefit the politicians or their cronies.  Voters feel the need to first be suspicious and then carefully scrutinize the spending of tax dollars.

The Lexington Town Council can impose the tax without public debate or scrutiny if they wish.  Approval or referendum is not legally required.  But to this Council, it is morally necessary to shine as much light on the plan, the proceedings and the intent as possible.

Still, there are those who elect to be uninformed about how city government works and the nuances that have such a huge impact on running a municipality.  So it is with the opposition to the hospitality tax.

Among the faux arguments made against the tax is the contention that “the town has plenty of money to do this, so they don’t need to raise taxes.”

The Town Council cut around $600,000 this year in order to balance the budget.  Further, Lexington owes $2 million for property the previous council bought, payment of which will take several years.  Where is this phantom money?

Another whine has been “It’s going to be disruptive!  Traffic from I-20 to town will be two hours (direct quote).  Why do all the intersections at once?  Why not spread it out sequentially?

So, make it an eight year project?  Ten?  There will be inconvenience, sure, but if temporary disturbance is going to be avoided, NO new construction, improvements or innovation will ever occur.  I’ve driven I-95 more often than most people, going back to before it was completed between South Carolina and Baltimore.  I remember the detours around/through places like Wilson, NC and the bottlenecks when the roadway squeezed from four lanes to two.  But the result was worth the disruption.  It’s a consequence of progress.

As is usual, complainers are notoriously uninformed and void of alternatives.

On WLTX Mr. Wes Howard said this about the tax:

“Nobody wants our taxes raised. I want our roads fixed. I don’t want our taxes raised and I don’t think we need to raise our taxes. My thinking is, ‘Why not let the citizens talk about it. Let’s take six months. Figure it out. Get more input from the town,’ I would like to see a bypass. Plain and simple.”

There are several things about this quote that are  laughable.  “I want our roads fixed. I don’t want our taxes raised…”  In other words, I want things, but I don’t want to pay for them.  That’s kinda like welfare; people want the government to give them stuff, but they don’t want to work for it.

Then there’s “‘Why not let the citizens talk about it. Let’s take six months. Figure it out. Get more input from the town.” To what end?  Does Mr. Howard believe the Council just came up with this idea over lunch one day?  There have already been months of work put in on this, not just by the Council and Town Administrator, but by engineers and professional planners.  And what is expected to be achieved in six months?  Will the traffic problems fix themselves by February?  Will money that currently is unavailable suddenly appear in the Town treasury?  As for “talking about it,” that’s what’s being done now and will be done in three more public sessions the Council will hold.

And then, my favorite: “I would like to see a bypass. Plain and simple.”  Bless his heart, Mr. Howard is either fiscally inattentive or geographically … uninformed.  A bypass?  There is so much wrong with this idea maybe Mr. Howard should take six months and figure out why.

Take a look. Click for larger image.
Take a look. Click for larger image.

The town can only conduct roadwork within city limits, so any viable bypass plan (and there is none) would have to involve county, state and even SCE&G property.

Then, there is the cost.  The three proposed intersections are estimated to cost about $16 million.  To build a bypass would cost probably 50 to 100 times that.  Why?  It would involve new road construction whereas the current plan is just intersection improvement with the exception of one small side street relocation.  Then, there would be the astronomical right-of-way and easement costs, minimal in the proposal now being offered.  The engineering, survey and other pre-construction costs would also be exorbitant.  What kind of tax increase would this require, or does Mr. Howard think it would be free?

But, the most destructive argument against the Wes Howard Bypass is where it would go.   Any such “bypass” would mean taking out whole or parts of neighborhoods and businesses and, of course, “bypassing” other businesses that would lose customers.

Also, no small consideration is the topography of Lexington.  There is a LOT of water in this town; streams, creeks and ponds are scattered throughout the municipality.  In quite a few cases, these wetlands have curtailed development because of either environmental laws or just laws of physics.  If, for whatever reason, a house can’t be built on or near these properties, how can one expect a highway to be constructed?

Mr. Howard can be forgiven for being unaware/uninformed, but one of the council members cannot be excused.  Councilman Ted Stambolitis voiced his opposition to the tax wih reasoning that is curious at best and deceiving in the whole.  He insisted there were other ways by which the town can raise the necessary revenue, specifically “by getting our fair share of gas taxes.  Those are owed to us and we should get them.”

First, it should be noted that Mr. Stambolitis is a restaurateur.  He was asked if the tax would impact his business and he responded, curiously, that he hasn’t looked into that.  One would think a successful businessman would have run the numbers.  I’ll take him at his word.  However, on the gas and “other” tax contentions, neither I, nor anyone else, should take his word.  That’s because he is wrong and he should know better.

According to Mr. Britt Poole, Town Administrator:

“Gas tax is collected by the State and Federal Government the Town does not get any revenue from that source.”

What about other taxes? Again from Mr. Poole:

“Municipality taxation avenues are limited. We can have property tax but are only allowed to increase it by a few percent each year.  We have not raised property tax in 28 years. We can and do have an Accommodation Tax (on hotel stays) it generates little over $100K per year. Those are our options.”

The lack of options was mentioned during the presentation at the town meeting and Mr. Poole and members of the Council were available to elaborate.  Yet Mr. Stambolitis, a member of the Council for eleven years, was either unaware of this very critical and salient point, or he chose to not just ignore it, but to be deceitful about it.  Why?

Another comment from Mr. Stambolitis fails to meet the smell test.  He told Lake and Main that he’s had a couple of emails from people who say they will not dine in Lexington if the tax is enacted.  It’s not that there is doubt he got such emails, but that people will actually choose to boycott Lexington eating establishments (including Mr. Stambolitis’).

Where will these protesters eat?  Not Richland County (including, of course, Harbison, the Vista and Riverbanks Zoo), not West Columbia or Cayce because they all impose a hospitality tax on prepared foods.  They will spend more money on gasoline to go to other places to avoid paying 16 cents extra for a Big Mac combo.

Taxes aren’t pretty, and instituting them is uglier still.  The Lexington Town Council should be applauded for their thorough and open approach to correcting a major problem.  They are being transparent, they are listening to the public (though they don’t have to), and they are being methodical.

They are being responsible.

Good on ‘em!

15 comments

  1. This does not only effect the people in Lex. , the resturants, food stores, employees. Many will not eat in Lex because it will cost them more for what they can go to Columbia, Irmo or Gilbert for and pay less. If you want to make Lex. better stop taxing. Let people keep their money and gov. work on what they already take from the people. They say more people will be moving into lex.is why this is important so there is more money in taxes. Taxed enough already!

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    • Carolyn, thanks for commenting. Are you aware that Richland County already has a hospitality tax? In some cases, it will cost more to drive the extra distance and back than to pay the additional 2 cents on the dollar.

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  2. tell me how many business developments have been denied or required to take action to assist traffic? My guess is not many. Council needs to stop approving everything and asking citizens to pay to fix things. Approximately 8 burger joints 8mattress stores 8 pizza stores within a mile. We need a coordinated effort! An apartment at 1-20 and more homes there also. Fixing the roads won’t help without smart zoning an planning! We are becoming the new Two notch road!! Yuk

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    • Thanks, Neal. Actually, the town cannot deny business or other construction if those properties adhere to zoning regulations. If a plot is deemed commercial, it can house any business that is so deemed. That was demonstrated recently when Dollar General obtained property on Augusta Highway near the Woodcreek development. Residents (me being one) didn’t want a Dollar General so close, but the town could not legally deny the permit.

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      • Thanks I knew that, they just approved a 250 person senior living development in my back yard. But they can create a smart plan and change some ordinances to help out. Don’t just ask us to pay extra to control the mayhem!!! The roads need work but so does zoning and planning. Business will help if they want to come here.

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  3. When the Town Council is willing to cut their $80,000 “hospitality” budget, then we can talk about raising taxes for the little people (or should we citizens of the Town expect a 2% increase in that budget?). Does the Town own the roads, or do the County and State own them? If you want to pay more taxes, I’m sure any government will gladly accept your voluntary donation.

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      • I stand corrected. 11k was used for meetings and meals. 49k was used for travel. So only 60k was spent on “hospitality”. While the Town continues to grow in population and revenue, it just isn’t enough, I suppose. And, after all, why should it be enough? As the Town expands its geographic limits, why not expand its revenue limits, too. It’s a never ending revenue stream, when you can just take it.

        As you pointed out in your opinion piece, we little people should be grateful that the Council is giving us the opportunity to learn about their brilliant plan to take more of our money, and to give people less reason to dine out.

        Finally, this type of tax will be most oppressive to the ones who can afford it the least.

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  4. The only other municipality in Lexington County that has imposed the H Tax is Cayce. Your reference to West Columbia having the tax is incorrect.

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  5. Rusty, thanks for the expansion. I believe you are misinterpreting the expenses you noted. The travel and meals may be the cost of travel on official business. But, to be fair, suggest you contact a Council member and ask for clarification. No sense in speculating.

    I don’t know what you mean by the town expanding it’s geographic limits. The only annexation of which I am aware are a few “donut holes” within city limits. If you know of any boundary expansion, please advise.

    In my opinion, I believe you (and others) overstate the impact on consumers. Two cents on the dollar is hardly oppressive.

    I am very interested in whatever feedback you get from your queries about expenses and boundary extension.

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  6. Two cents on the dollar really doesn’t sound oppressive, except, when coupled with the 7% sales tax, that’s 9%. That’s .13 on your $1.49 Taco Bell value item, or a quarter extra for each of your kids Happy Meals. Whatever it is, it’s not right for the Town to collect taxes for county, state, or federal roads/road projects. Death by 1000 tiny taxes still drains the citizens of their money.

    Again, I would invite anyone who favors giving more money to the government to, please, do so. In the meantime, I need to get back to work, so that I can earn more money to give back to the government that is supposed to represent me…

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