Lancaster County Council weighs 1-cent sales tax hike

INDIAN LAND -- The Lancaster County Council may ask voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase to fund capital projects, potentially paving the way for a new courthouse.

On Monday, the council voted to start a capital projects sales tax commission, which is required by state law to detail and prioritize capital projects that would be funded by the tax increase. The commission will include three representatives chosen by the county's municipalities -- two from the city of Lancaster and one from Heath Springs or Kershaw -- all nominated by the council.

The council hopes a new courthouse will top the commission's project list, but it's no guarantee.

A new courthouse would cost approximately $25 million, County Administrator Steve Willis said. The capital projects sales tax would generate approximately $34 million or more, allowing room for additional capital projects determined by the commission to be funded.

After the commission makes its recommendation for a project list -- which may or may not include a courthouse -- the council only has the authority to approve or deny the proposal. Approving the proposal would send the sales tax question to the voters.

If a courthouse is Lancaster County's objective, the best method may not be a sales tax hike, Indian Land councilman Bryan Vaughn said. He said the commission might not properly represent voters.

"Thirty percent of the county population is in District 1, and theoretically, they could be left out of representation," Vaughn said. "If we're going to set it up, it needs to be a cross-section of the county."

Additionally, business leaders are likely to be against the increase because it would bring Lancaster County's sales tax to 8 cents, a penny higher than York County's sales tax.

"People will spend their dollars outside the county," Vaughn said.

Another capital-needs project recently discussed by the council is an Indian Land service center with satellite county offices.

However, Vaughn suggests public funding for either the service center or courthouse may be a tough sell.

"We're in the middle of a recession," he said. "There couldn't be a worse time to put yourself in front of the voters. If you add a bunch of pork to this project, you're going to have people all over the county against it because no one wants to give this crowd up here a blank check."

Nominations to the capital projects sales tax commission will be reviewed at the council's April 28 meeting.