Greenwood County Council on Tuesday passed the second reading of an ordinance which would allow the expenditure of about $10.5 million from the Capital Project Sales Tax fund to retire all of the county's debt.
Council passed the measure 6-0, with councilman Robbie Templeton absent from the meaning. Third reading is scheduled for council's next regular meeting on April 1.
Council held a public hearing on the matter. One resident, Grant Blair, spoke out against the ordinance.
"The last time I spoke to county council, you were looking at a contract for Buzzard Roost Hydro facility to replace Duke Power with Santee Cooper," Blair said. "I got up here and said, 'If you do this, you're going to keep (Federal Energy Regulatory Commission).' Well, how did that work out for you?
"If the contract had expired, the dam would no longer be subject to federal regulation," Blair continued. "That would have been a cheaper alternative, but later on you got presented a $30 million bill."
The measure could potentially save the county hundreds of thousands of dollars in interest by retiring the debt and would free up 6.1 mills in property taxes, which is the portion set aside for debt. The amount of millage returned to taxpayers will be determined in the upcoming budget discussions. County manager Toby Chappell said that each mill would save taxpayers about $4 for a $100,000 home. If all 6.1 mills were returned to the taxpayers, that would translate to about $24 less in property taxes on a $100,000 home.
The money would come from the funds collected through the Capital Project Sales Tax, commonly known as the Penny Tax. The Penny Tax, which was collected from May 2007 through June 2012, generated about $44.3 million. Of that money, $10 million was earmarked for the new library and $15 million was earmarked for two projects at Buzzards Roost Dam. One project was a seismic upgrade which the county appealed and FERC ultimately determined that the project was not necessary. The other project is an upgrade to the fuse plug at the dam which is now estimated to cost about $18 million.
Margaret Pope of Pope Zeigler Law Firm, who is a Greenwood native, told council that the library project cost about $9.4 million and another $3.2 million had been expended from the fund for financing costs and the dam hydro project. After all expenses and the $18 million estimated for the fuse plug upgrade, the county has about $13.7 million left in the fund. The county’s total debt is about $10.5 million. If all the debt is retired, there would be about $3.2 million remaining in the fund.
Councilman Steve Brown has been a vocal advocate of returning the entire 6.1 mills to taxpayers. However, during Tuesday’s meeting, Brown expressed some reservation and paying off the debt due to the problems with FERC concerning the seismic study. During discussion about the ordinance, Brown said he would feel comfortable voting either way on the debt defeasance.
“When I was looking at how I would vote on this, I could vote either way and still feel good,” Brown said. “It’s unusual for me to for and against something and still feel good about it. I’ve looked at both sides of the issue and whether I will vote for it or against it. It’s not an easy decision.”
Brown ultimately voted in favor of retiring the debt.