York County voters, though few in numbers, spoke clearly at the polls Tuesday with a resounding "yes" to seven more years of "Pennies for Progress," the county's 1-cent sales tax for road-building.
Unofficial results from Tuesday's vote show landslide support for Pennies, with 82 percent casting their ballots in favor. More than half of precincts reported at least 80 percent support, and 21 precincts reported at least 90 percent support.
Voter turnout was abysmal compared to previous years - at 9 percent - well below the 23 percent turnout in 1997 and 16 percent in 2003. But the low turnout didn't diminish project leaders' enthusiasm in celebrating Tuesday night.
"We are ecstatic," said Phil Leazer, Pennies program manager. York County taxpayers have "obviously come out and shown us that they believe in the program."
"The citizens certainly made it clear," said York County Council Chairman Britt Blackwell. "I think they see what a return on the investment this is."
The tax will raise $161 million to pay for 12 major highway widening projects, 39 gravel road paving projects, and 11 intersection projects aimed at improving vehicle and pedestrian safety.
The program won't mean any new tax. The 2011 Pennies tax collection will begin at the end of September, as soon as the prior program's tax collection ends.
An uncertain future
Though widely endorsed by community leaders, Pennies attracted some opponents. Concerns over the program's 14-year history of cost overruns, long construction times and management snags lingered among some residents.
The maintenance needs of many roads tainted some residents' views of the Pennies program. Some have questioned the focus of the Pennies program and whether it could be recrafted to address more maintenance-related needs.
Melvin Poole, Rock Hill's NAACP president, led an opposition effort, arguing some residents' concerns were left out of the latest list of projects. He urged county leaders to vote down the list of proposed projects and start over, focusing some of the Pennies money on addressing stormwater, flooding and pothole problems in several neighborhoods in southeast Rock Hill.
Poole said Tuesday night he was "very disappointed. I wasn't really against Pennies. I was against the way the money was being spent."
"Roads and sewage are safety and quality-of-life issues," and goals of the Pennies program, he said.
Roderick McClurkin, 38, of the Flint Hill neighborhood in Rock Hill, voted against Pennies for "not doing anything on that side of town."
The Pennies projects are going to "affluent" neighborhoods, he said. "It's kind of disheartening to see our side of town go down." A "facelift" - which Pennies could provide - would help attract more businesses, he said.
But many voters found reasons to support Pennies despite acknowledging the program's flaws.
Mary Jackson, 78, of Clover voted "yes" despite knowing that it won't fix the potholes on her residential street. "We have so many roads that need repairs."
Bill Wooten, 67, has voted "yes" twice before and did so again Tuesday "so they can complete all this mess," he said.
Generally pleased with Pennies, Wooten hopes the county completes future projects more quickly. He's also noticed many projects "favor eastern York County," but that hasn't curbed his support. The east is where most of the people and traffic are, he said.
Ready to get started
Leazer said ideally the county will complete the 2011 Pennies projects within 10 years.
The county opted for a pay-as-you-go system rather than borrowing money up front to jump-start the projects. That means some expenses can only be paid after the full amount has been collected.
How long a project takes to complete will depend on its complexity and whether federal or environmental permits are necessary. Preliminary work on some projects is already underway.
"We have a plan to attack this thing, and we feel pretty good about it," Leazer said.
County Manager Jim Baker and council member Bump Roddey both said Tuesday night that the county will have to start looking at ways to address the growing need for maintenance on the county's other roads. But for now, they're soaking in the victory.
"I'm excited that the community stepped up and taxed themselves again to support roads," Baker said. "There aren't many communities that are willing to do that today, so we're ahead of the curve."
Jerry Helms, who chairs the citizen commission assigned to select projects, said he didn't see this margin of victory coming.
The overwelming support "means so much," Helms said. "We've put ourselves in a position to seize the prosperity that will come in the future."
"Our citizens make great choices, and we have a very bright future."