Panel plans wastewater upgrade

WINNSBORO – A proposed capital projects sales tax to help finance a new wastewater treatment plant is expected to generate roughly $11.5 million over the next eight years, according to Fairfield County estimates.

Particulars of how those funds should be allocated and administered rests with a newly created capital projects sales tax commission, which held its inaugural meeting April 15.

The commission is tasked with developing a proposed referendum question, which Fairfield County Council must adopt by August 15 for it to appear on the November general election ballot.

The need for a wastewater plant is simple – economic development, said County Administrator Jason Taylor.

“A sewer plant is essentially a means to an end. That end is a better quality of life for our citizens, economic opportunity for our citizens,” Taylor said. “We have a declining population. We have to do something to turn that around, to make Fairfield County sustainable economically.”

The proposed wastewater plant would be built at a location that hasn’t been disclosed because property negotiations are ongoing. Once the land is purchased, the county plans to build the wastewater plant there.

If voters approve the referendum, the tax would go into effect in May 2021 and generate about $1.4 million per year in the first three years, with modest growth possible in future years, said C.D. Rhodes, an attorney assisting Fairfield County with the referendum.

Rhodes spent most of last week’s meeting briefing committee members on the nuances of state law regarding capital projects sales taxes.

The proposed tax would add a penny of sales tax to most items except groceries and medicine. Revenues raised could be used to leverage additional funding via general obligation bonds, Rhodes said.

“I think in this case, that’s going to be a necessity,” he said. “It really is an excellent tool. It’s a flexible tool for counties to use to fund these large-scale [projects].”

At least half of the state’s 46 counties use capital projects tax revenues to leverage bonds, and four to five others have done so in the past, Rhodes added

“This really is on a statewide basis. It’s being seen as an essential tool to fund capital projects,” he said.

Fairfield County officials say a new wastewater plant is imperative to luring new industry.

Ty Davenport, the county’s economic development director, said Fairfield is one of five finalists to land a new industry.

That industry, he said, anticipates using 30,000 gallons of wastewater per day, nearly matching the county’s current daily capacity of 34,000 gallons.

“That will leave us with 4,000 gallons per day of capacity, which is basically zero,” Davenport said. “If we don’t expand our capacity in the county, economic development basically stops. If you lose a company, you’re going backwards.”

Economic growth isn’t limited to big industry. Fairfield County officials note that housing growth is at a virtual standstill too without adequate wastewater service.

“We can’t build a residential neighborhood in the county because it would be difficult to get sewer service. We want good housing stock and good places to live,” Davenport said.

Tax commission members said they understood the need for economic development, but also wanted more details about the proposed wastewater project and process for funding it.

To that end, they asked county staff to generate an FAQ list to proactively answer questions that may arise from the public.

“We need to have sewer and water just to, at a bare minimum, interest people to come into Fairfield County,” said Commissioner Rick Gibson. “But I’d like to be just a little bit more informed before we push off from the shore.”

Others also inquired about accountability, specifically asking for oversight of how the tax money gets spent.

Rhodes said the S.C. Department of Revenue (DOR) provides administrative oversight to ensure tax money is spent as intended.

He also said the judicial system provides another layer of accountability, referencing civil litigation challenging how Richland County’s road tax funds have been spent.

“In the event that the county council attempts to spend this money in a way that’s outside the bounds of the act, then they would be violating the law, and they’d be subject to a lawsuit,” Rhodes said. “Richland County has been the poster child for playing fast and loose with [sales tax money].”

Commissioners also asked if tax revenues could be posted online.

Taylor said that shouldn’t be difficult since the DOR disburses funds quarterly. Rhodes concurred, saying the county and commission should act with transparency.

“If you are not being transparent, if you’re not engaging the public, then someone out there is going to flush you out,” Rhodes said. “They are going to lambaste you on Facebook and make your life miserable. There is no hiding in this day and age. Being transparent and having lots of public engagement is an absolute necessity if you are going to be successful in one of these initiatives.”

In other business, the group appointed Herb Rentz as chairman, Charlene Herring as vice-chair and Harriet Brown as secretary. Other members include Randy Bright, Rick Gibson and Russ Brown.