Spartanburg County political leaders voice unified support for penny referendum

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Left to right: Josh Kimbrell, chairman of the Spartanburg County Republican Party, Shelly Roehrs, chairwoman of the Spartanburg County Democratic Party, Karen Martin, head of the Spartanburg Tea Party, and Allen Smith, president and CEO of the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, speak in favor of the county proposed 1-cent sales tax increase to raise revenue for a new courthouse and a joint city/county facility during a press conference Monday at downtown Spartanburg's Morgan Square.

A chilly breeze brushed downtown Spartanburg’s Morgan Square Monday morning.

But frosty political relations thawed as leaders of three prominent local political groups, who admittedly don’t agree on much, joined together and voiced support for a countywide penny sales tax increase.

Spartanburg County Democratic Party Chairwoman Shelly Roehrs, Spartanburg County Republican Party Chairman Josh Kimbrell, and Karen Martin, head of the Spartanburg Tea Party, were featured during a press conference held beside the Daniel Morgan Monument.

The Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce, an organization that has been vocal in its support of the referendum, facilitated the event.

“I’m sure it’s no shock that a progressive Democrat is up here supporting this penny referendum,” Roehrs said. “What is a shock is that we’re here together.”

Spartanburg residents will decide in eight days whether to add one cent to the county’s sales tax for six years in order to generate revenue for the construction of a new courthouse and a joint city/county government facility.

“We have dilapidated buildings that are now a public safety hazard,” Kimbrell said. “The two choices are: we get a permanent property tax increase, [or] we do a 1- [cent] sales tax increase. I’m going to go with the temporary, sunsetted 1- [cent] sales tax increase versus a permanent property tax increase.”

The referendum will appear as a question on the Nov. 7 general election ballot in the county.

Leaders said the cost of the new facilities is estimated at almost $217 million. They expect the tax increase will raise $224 million.

Funds will be used to construct a new judicial center, municipal court/police building, emergency operations center, city/county government center, and parking garages for both facilities.

Extra revenue generated by the tax increase would be used to improve local roads and bridges, leaders said.

Spartanburg County Council Chairman Jeff Horton said the new courthouse facilities would be built on the site that houses the current courthouse at 180 Magnolia Street.

The joint city/county facility could be constructed on the site that is currently home to city hall at 145 W. Broad St.

Both local government agencies would have to consult a professional architect or construction manager before building the joint facility, one official said.

Spartanburg leaders have considered a variety of ways to raise revenue, including a property tax increase.

Horton described the referendum as the “optimal” way for the county to grow the tax base while placing the least amount of tax burden on local residents.

“This is a really important issue for our county,” Martin said. “Why is the Tea Party on board with the tax increase? The reason is because funds are going to be raised to support a core government service.”

Spartanburg Chamber president and CEO Allen Smith, said his organization conducted a study in partnership with Clemson University researcher Bob Brookover.

People who live outside of the county, the study estimates, will generate about $70 million of that revenue. For example, people stopping to buy gas and concessions at convenience stores along Interstates 85 and 26, or visitors spending money in local shops and restaurants.

Leaders said Spartanburg County is one of just six counties in South Carolina which has never implemented a penny sales tax increase.

They said the joint city/county facility would be the first of its kind in the state and could save up to $12 million.

Smith said the six-year period is mandated by the state.

“These leaders standing with me today understand that our local government facilities, along with the courthouse, have reached a public safety and public health tipping point,” Smith said. “The need could not be clearer.”

Spartanburg resident Don Bramblett holds a sign that shows his opposition to the referendum, which will appear on the ballot in Spartanburg County during the Nov. 7 general election.

During the past 14 months, mold issues have forced closures of parts of the courthouse.

Officials said the mold problems will have to be remediated ever few years, and dozens of worker’s compensation claims have been filed against the county.

The courthouse is also “unsafe” due to its size and configuration, which forces inmates, jurors, judges, witnesses, and the general public to “commingle” in the same hallways, leaders said.

Leaders of multiple city and county government departments served as advisors of a report conducted by Justice Planning Associates that was completed in May.

The report studied the long-term needs of those departments relative to the county’s population growth, which has doubled since the existing city and county facilities were built, leaders said.

Many of the local judicial, city, and county government facilities were found to be lacking the sufficient quantity and quality of space, and in need of renovation or expansion, according to the report. Several were found to be inappropriate for continued use.

“Ladies and gentlemen, if we do not pass this, we are walking away from $70 million that would come from people who don’t even live here,” Smith said. “This is a no-brainer. And all of us standing here today and the dozens of people who are here supporting this encourage you to go and vote ‘yes’ on Nov. 7. The hundreds of people who work in these facilities deserve better. The thousands of people who conduct their business in these facilities deserve better. And, frankly, the people of Spartanburg…we deserve better.”

Don Bramblett, who is the head of rules and credentials for the Spartanburg County Democratic Party, attended Monday’s event.

He displayed a sign that read “Vote No.”

Bramblett, a local electrician, has been vocal in his opposition to the referendum as the sole source of revenue for the new facilities.

He said he believes city and council governments can explore more options to raise the funds, such as scaling back incentives for new companies. He said he fears leaders are using the threat of a potential property tax hike as a scare tactic to induce voters to approve the referendum.

“We desperately need the facilities,” Bramblett said. “County Council never considered anything except the sales tax. The county, for some reason, they put businesses on too high a pedestal. They do not allow them to participate in the community like regular homeowners and residents do… I don’t want anyone to suffer. It’s time for some new buildings, but I think that we can do better.”

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