Penny tax one step closer to being on November ballot

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) – Richland County leaders will ask voters to approve another transportation sales tax known as the “penny tax” in the upcoming general election.
The penny tax is a one-cent sales and use tax meant to fund transportation and road projects.
Voters approved the first and current penny tax back in 2012, but with some controversy surrounding the program, it could be harder to get a yes out of voters come November.
“I’m a single parent of three beautiful kids and see the more y’all do a penny tax on me, yes I work full time, but the more taxes y’all put on us the more taxes I have to pay and it’s already out here enough being a single parent,” said one Richland County resident.
If you drive around Richland County, you’ll see the signs: “This project funded by your penny.”
Richland County leaders say the program has funded more than 500 road projects throughout the county, but it’s nearing its $1.07 billion limit just 13 years into the program.
A recent needs assessment survey done in 2023 shows there’s more road and transportation work to be done.
“County leaders want to be proactive and make sure that we are prepared for the growth that we already know exists but also the growth to come,” Richland County Council Chairwoman Jesica Mackey said.
The new penny tax is projected to accrue four times more funding than the current penny tax, bringing the total to $4.5 billion.
“I’m already paying taxes on everything anyway. Everything is already high. So, I don’t know the difference from a penny here to a penny there,” said a voter in Richland County.
48 percent of that would go to community investment, 30 would go to county advancement and 22 percent would go to the Comet Bus System. While voters approved the tax program in 2012, WIS News 10 spoke with several voters who are reluctant to vote yes come November.
In 2015, an initial audit report from the state Department of Revenue (DOR) alleged Richland County misspent $41 million worth of funds from the penny program. That amount was then reduced to $32 million. Richland County argued the money was spent towards startup costs for various road projects.
Six years later, Richland County reached a settlement agreement with DOR. While the county didn’t have to pay anything to the state, they did agree to pay back $15.5 million to the program.
While there was no fraud found on the county’s part, Chairwoman Mackey assures this won’t be an issue in the future.
“The transportation penny is now being operated in house, managed by county employees and that allows us to have oversight over the program and we’re getting monthly updates on the project,” she said.
Mackey said the county is focused on being transparent when it comes to this program, having started a website that educates people on the penny tax and shows the progress of current projects and their costs.
County council members passed the second reading of the tax, but they want to hear from voters.
There will be a public input session where people can express their concerns and ask any questions about the program.
The session is scheduled for next Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the Richland County Government Building on Hampton Street.
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