Since the release of the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce’s Regional Economic Benchmarking Report for Aiken County on May 15, there has been no shortage of opinions aired in TalkBack and the Aiken Standard editorial pages about what the report means for our community.
The data in the benchmarking report clearly show recent declines in our community’s levels of per capita income, average weekly wages, retail sales, employment and residential new construction, along with a declining population growth rate that is approaching zero. It is now clear that our community’s economic situation is no longer holding steady, but is in fact on a downward trend.
Many of our community leaders believe it is time to take action to reverse these downward trends and ensure that the quality of life we all enjoy in Aiken will persist and thrive for generations to come. Continuing on our current path will threaten our community’s future. More jobs will be lost, more businesses will fail, housing values will remain stagnant, and families will struggle to maintain their standard of living with falling wages.
In the long run, returning our community to a path of regular, sustainable economic growth will require a higher rate of population growth. Aiken has been very successful in attracting significant numbers of retirees and equestrians, who have contributed greatly to our community and helped to make it a more diverse, vibrant place to live. At this point, we need to attract more higher-income families with young children who will put their roots down in Aiken and be committed to improving the community for themselves, their children and their grandchildren. Bringing new high-paying, manufacturing jobs to Aiken County is one very important way to attract these families to our community.
But we have learned that the workers who move to our area to take these new high-paying, manufacturing jobs do not always choose to reside in Aiken County, thereby diminishing the positive economic impact on our community.
So the question is, how can we make Aiken more attractive to these workers, who typically have families with young children? Apart from the natural charm of our city, which is a great asset, one of the most important considerations for families with young children is the quality of our schools.
While we have some of the finest, most dedicated school teachers and administrators in the state, many of our public school facilities are outdated and in need of significant renovation or replacement. If our schools are not attractive to these families, then they will choose to live elsewhere, even if their job is located in Aiken County.
For many years, rising property values and retail sales provided a growing stream of tax revenues for our local governments and school district, with no increases in millage rates being necessary. Now that property values have levelled off, and retail sales have fallen, tax revenues have suffered. Aiken County voters understood this need and approved a third round of the temporary, one percent Capital Projects Sales Tax in 2010. The Capital Projects Sales Tax has been a “godsend” for both the City of Aiken and Aiken County, enabling them to improve our community’s infrastructure and enhance their level of service to local residents. A similar temporary, one cent sales tax has now been proposed for Aiken County Public Schools, and will go before voters this November. If approved, it will enable Aiken County Public Schools to make significant progress in improving the condition of our aging school facilities, with 10 percent of the tax proceeds earmarked for property tax relief for homeowners and businesses.
Raising local taxes is not something to be undertaken lightly. Higher local property or sales taxes cut into everyone’s wallet a bit and transfer some spending power from private to public hands. But our school district, city and county governments must have sufficient funds to provide the public goods and services we need to make our community a safe and attractive place to live. This is not “taxing and spending our way to prosperity,” as some have described it; this is making a sensible public investment in our community to support sustainable, moderate growth and ensure that our community can protect and preserve its high quality of life.
Clifton Jones was a co-author of the Regional Economic Benchmarking Report.