Could a penny tax be the answer to aging Aiken Co. schools?

News 12 at First at Five / Tuesday, Oct. 9, 2012

NORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. -- Approximately 1,600 students pack into North Augusta High School, a school built for only 900.

On Monday, legislators saw the overcrowding for themselves and the outdated facilities, too. But the high school will soon see a major renovation under the district's five-year facility improvement plan.

"A two-story building that will house science classrooms and labs and business classrooms and labs," said Ray Fleming, the vice chairman for the Aiken County Board of Education.

Fleming says that improvement will be just phase one of an eight-phase project to replace practically the whole school. He says the county's plan cannot purely focus on North Augusta High School. There are many other schools that need improvements, too. So, if one phase of North Augusta High is completed every five years, it'll take 40 years or more to renovate the whole school.

Fleming says that's not realistic and that's why the district needs a 1-cent sales tax.

"A lot of folks in the community have told us they would rather pay a penny sales tax than they would to have an increase in their property taxes," Fleming said.

Fleming estimates that if voters approve a sales tax, $20 million a year could be pumped into North Augusta and other schools throughout the county. But there's another problem.

"That option, currently, is not available to Aiken County or, in essence, to any other county in the state," he said.

Right now, state law prohibits counties from voting on a sales tax unless that county brings in $7 million or more each year in accommodation taxes. Only Charleston and Horry counties do -- not Aiken.

Fleming says that problem is yet another reason why the visit by lawmakers is so important. He says he wants the law changed.

"This penny sales tax throughout the county would help students in communities in Aiken, Ridge Spring, Monetta, Wagener, Salley area, Jackson, New Ellenton, it would help them all," he said.

Rep. Bill Hixon of North Augusta was at the school tour Monday and says lawmakers in Columbia need to work on a change to that law so Aiken County taxpayers will have the vote to decide if they want to pay 1 cent more on every dollar for school improvements.

Will Williams, director of the Economic Development Partnership, says having nicer schools in Aiken County will prevent more businessmen and industry managers from choosing to live in Columbia County, where many schools are newer and have more desirable exteriors. Williams says companies judge books by their cover, too, which is another reason for school improvements.

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