Greenville County Weighs How to Pay for $3B Road Maintenance Backlog

"Road repair funding options"

Greenville County Weighs How to Pay for $3B Road Maintenance Backlog

Greenville County Council is edging closer to some hard decisions on how to address an estimated $3 billion backlog in road maintenance needs. County staff delivered a sobering briefing and offered an initial glimpse of potential funding options during the council’s Committee of the Whole meeting on February 20.

Falling Behind

There are about 4,000 miles of roads in the county, and about 75% of arterial and collector roads are in fair or poor condition, staff reported. The cost to resurface and repair roads in poor or fair condition — both those maintained by the county and those owned by the state — is estimated at about $2 billion. High-priority projects identified by the state, county, and municipalities add another $1 billion to the backlog total.

“For that billion dollars of work, there’s no funding identified,” said Tee Coker, assistant county administrator for community planning and development. “We’re just experiencing a lot of difficulties being able to keep up.”

Coker walked the council through the county’s road situation using a new interactive website prepared for that purpose and pointed out that of 75 high-priority projects identified in 2014, none have been funded. The county collects about $12 million a year from the $25 road fee assessed for every vehicle registered in the county. But rising costs have meant this funding covers many fewer miles than it used to, according to Hesha Gamble, assistant county administrator for engineering and public works.

Potential Funding

Of a handful of potential options to increase funding for roads, two lie directly with County Council to authorize, should it choose to do so – increasing property taxes and increasing the road maintenance fee. According to staff analysis, a 33-mill property tax increase would generate about $131 million a year that could be used for roads while increasing the road fee on vehicles to $250 would generate an equal amount.

Either option would be politically fraught given the uproar from some quarters last summer when the council increased property taxes for the first time in decades to cover the county’s increasing operational costs. Coker told the council most counties in the state do not rely on property taxes to cover roads.

Two other options are among a series of local option sales taxes authorized by the General Assembly in the 1990s, which require voter approval through a referendum. One option is a penny sales tax devoted to capital projects. Such projects could include roads and bridges but also public buildings and other construction benefiting the public.

Spartanburg County voters approved a capital projects sales tax in 2017 that funded several new buildings, including the Spartanburg County Courthouse opened last fall. Such a tax, if approved, would generate about $131 annually in Greenville County, or about $1.05 billion over eight years.

Another option requiring voter approval is a transportation penny sales tax. This differs from the capital projects tax in that it would also apply to unprepared food, such as groceries. Such a tax in Greenville County would generate about $153 million annually or about $1.2 billion over eight years.

The Path Ahead

Coker said most of Greenville’s peer counties across the state use one of the local sales tax options to pay for roads. If council decided to pursue either local sales tax option and voters approved, the funding generated would make a sizable dent in the road maintenance backlog, he said.

“I think we need to look at funding options,” said Dan Tripp, County Council chairman. Tripp asked staff to prepare a sample resolution council would have to approve as a necessary first step in getting a local sales tax on the ballot. He also asked staff to schedule a council workshop in the coming weeks to further explore funding options.

Tripp said it was his understanding that if council wanted to put a local sales tax measure on November’s ballot, all the necessary preparation would need to be completed by Aug. 15.

How a Penny Sales Tax Works

Local penny sales tax options for funding capital projects or transportation are spelled out in Title 4 Chapter 10 of South Carolina’s State Code. There are a number of steps in the process and the law stipulates a county can impose only one of these taxes at a time.

The first step involves County Council passing a resolution creating a six-member commission – 3 appointed by the county, 3 by municipalities – charged with establishing the following:

  • The wording of the ballot question put to voters in a referendum.
  • The purposes for which the funding will be spent.
  • The duration of the tax in two-year increments up to a maximum of eight years from the initial imposition of the tax.
  • The ballot question must include the specific projects and the costs of each.

Once the ballot question has been determined, county council must approve an ordinance directing the county election commission to put the matter before voters at the next general election, defined in the law as the Tuesday following the first Monday in November in any year. The result of the referendum must be affirmed by County Council with a resolution.

If voters approve the measure, the tax will be imposed on May 1 of the year following the referendum.

HERE Greenville
Author: HERE Greenville

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