Recently, a guest column in the Aiken Standard raised a number of questions about the referendum on adding a one-cent sales tax to benefit local school facilities, which is currently under discussion.
Former Aiken County Councilman Gary Bunker ably asserted in his column the notion that our community is successful exactly because we have moved very slowly, if at all, to add taxes across the board for residents in recent years, and I have no doubt that there are many of us who are proud that our government has been responsible and conservative in that way.
However, that article was constructed around an underlying thread that keeping taxes low is all that is required to have an attractive and growing community.
I do not think that is the case now, and I firmly believe that it has never been the case in this community that we have come to love.
This is a community that has a history of anticipating needs and developing plans to address them before they become emergencies.
I think of the stories I have heard about knotty decisions years ago to grow the capacity for water resources even before they were needed. Wells were sunk and surface streams were tapped to assure steady flows supportive of the opportunity to grow in the future.
Recent years of drought have demonstrated the wisdom of this approach, as we saw other cities face dire circumstances related to water resources that were never so destructive here.
Similarly, a regional approach to developing waste water treatment resources led to the construction of facilities that have ably served our domestic and industrial needs over the last 30-plus years.
This capacity has, on more than one occasion, set our community apart from others in the competition for new and expanded economic investments. Those decisions, and others since then, were undoubtedly challenged by some at the time as being more expansive than necessary, but resulted in our county leading the state in several years with economic investments, which is noted as a good outcome in Bunker’s previous column.
Now, we find ourselves facing a new decision point related to school facilities. I agree with Bunker that school buildings alone do not define the quality of an educational experience.
There is much of which to be proud in our schools, and I have had the occasion to witness the outstanding graduates of the Aiken County Public School District during my nearly 30 years at the University of South Carolina Aiken. There are great things going on in those aging buildings, but I think the average person would be hard-pressed to look at the facades, heating and air-conditioning systems, lights, and furnishings, not to mention laboratories, and not be moved by the need to upgrade and improve them to better serve our students.
Now we have the recent economic indicators study commissioned by the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce and the Aiken-Edgefield Economic Development Partnership.
Bunker takes issue with the conclusion that losing families to nearby counties is a problem, but he fails to note that lack of growth, over the last decade, for young professional families is a significant problem for our future.
There are no effective communities that would be proud to discover that these potential new residents find other areas more attractive. But, I have dear friends who acknowledge this reality, and go on to state that they are just as happy to see those families going elsewhere, so that “we don’t have to pay for those schools through new taxes.”
I cannot fathom this logic, when I consider what this community could look like in 20 years under such policies. Well in excess of additional costs for education, the addition of young families brings consumers of real estate, retailers, and numerous small businesses in our community.
Those groups also provide the energy and support for civic engagement ranging from civic clubs and ad hoc committees, youth sports coaches and Scout leaders, and lay leaders in our congregations to assuming elected offices as their love of our community matures. They are the residents who will extend the successful trajectory for this area of which we are so proud.
So, I do not stand with my neighbors who suggest that we don’t need to make our community even more attractive to families with children, or that keeping taxes low is our only priority.
Whether in our community or any other, the measure of success is not, and never should be, our ability to avoid any new taxes.
Instead, it is to be found in community leaders who are prepared to make tough decisions to assure that we collect only what we really need in taxes, that every penny spent is well planned and appropriate for our current needs, and that every consideration is given to the necessary investments to bring about our best possible future.
Tom Hallman, an Aiken resident since 1983, served in a number of roles at the University of South Carolina Aiken during that time, including a period as chancellor from 2001 until his retirement in 2012.
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