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City Council Meeting September 27

Flooding, fees, disaster preparedness and property taxes
Marc Knapp

The discussion started with an update on the City's drainage projects. It ended with a call for more urgency in alleviating flooding in the City, an appeal for Federal Funds, consideration of higher drainage fees, and a request of the Mayor to update Council on the City's disaster preparedness.

The Director of Public Works, Ms. Laura Cabiness stated that the City has completed 10% of the drainage projects before it and another 29% is in the design phases. Funding for expenditure is largely derived from the City's storm water fee ($4 a month for residential units) that brings in $3.6 million a year. It also derives revenue from a 2 mil tax on real property. This revenue is dedicated to storm water improvements. Ms. Cabiness noted the current priority projects and their cost were Market Street - $22.5 million, Spring/ Fishburne Streets - $46 million and Byrnes Down - $4.6 million. The cost of the Market Street project will also be financed by a revenue bond.

Council did not take long to pick up on the discrepancy between the annual funding and projected costs. Council member Gilliard lamented the persistent flooding in the Burke High School area, and stated it could not always be laid at the feet of unusual weather conditions. Council member Shirley said although Council may be averse to raising taxes, he would be sympathetic to an increase to fund projects currently before the City considering the adverse impact of flooding. Council member Evans spoke of the degradation of the quality of life in West Ashley because of flooding. All this in turn prompted Council member Gilliard to suggest an increase in storm water fees. However, consideration may be deferred as there is a chance that the City could obtain a $12 million federal grant through the offices of Congressman Brown to assist in meeting part of the cost of the Spring/Fishburne Streets' Project. This project encompasses drainage that affects 500 acres or 20% of the Peninsula. Council agreed to move urgently with this request.

In the background of the address by Ms. Cabiness was the flooding in the Gulf States caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Council member George asked that the City to obtain an emergency generator to service the area around East Bay and Calhoun Street. Despite spending on improvements, bad flooding again occured after heavy rains because the power supply to the pumps failed. He also noted the importance of the Market Street area to the economy of Charleston with its high concentration of hospitality and retailing units. Again, there was the possibility of power failures and the risk of flooding. An emergency generator would ameliorate this problem. The City has budgeted $22.5 million for the Market Street project. Surely the cost of the added protection of say $1 million could be justified considering what was at stake economically? Ms. Cabiness estimated the cost of an emergency generator at about $0.5 million but was trying to conserve funds for spending in other areas of flooding. Her explanation was unconvincing.

Council member Fishburne, with the support of other members, asked that the Mayor give an account at the next Council meeting of what the City was doing in preparing for emergencies. The County has a program but City Council members would like to have details of the City's plans, at the very least so they can assure their constituents.

CFO in spotlight as he explains tax increases
With property taxes rising sharply for many in the City, the Mayor asked CFO Steve Bedard to address Council. Whether it was caused by some of the questions or an earlier matter, Mr. Bedard made is very clear he was not happy in front of Council. His tone was combative and he didn't help himself when he categorically stated that property taxes were the best way to collect revenue for school districts with seeming implication that anybody who thought otherwise was a fool. The revenue collected was not volatile as could be that from a sales tax and a lesser extent, an income tax, he said. We won't argue with his opinion but he made no effort to justify the tax on an equity basis. And Council member Fishburne did not let him escape without questioning his dogmatic opinion.

The increase in property taxes has been covered in the local press. Suffice for us to say that the major increase in taxes reflected the increase relating to the County School Board. The City of Charleston expected to raise revenue this year of about $52.4 million from property taxes in the City, up from $47.7 million last year. The increase is attributable largely to inflation and the increase in the number of dwellings. The revaluation of property within the City caused a major readjustment to property values and therefore, a major reallocation of the tax burden. Areas of the Peninsula saw big valuation increases but in West Ashley, increases were modest. In consequence, taxes in West Ashley were generally lower and on the Peninsula, much higher. In the City, the general millage this year is 78.9 and compares with 96.8 last year.

Mr. Bedard went further in comparing the City net millage alone with other municipalities. He noted that the City's rate was currently 53.3 mils on properties that were assessed at a 4% rate. This millage compared with 68.6 for North Charleston, 55.2 for James Island PSD and 97.6 for St Andrews PSD. He omitted the rate for Mount Pleasant. We can't reconcile these millage rates with his earlier and higher estimates. But we reproduce his graph showing the trend over the last 15 years Press here.

Planned new hotel causes exclusion of small area along King Street from new height restrictions?
Changes relating to the maximum height in the Old Historic District were also under consideration. The City has been lowering height limits along the commercial corridors and has already been approved changes in the areas south of Calhoun, and around Ansonborough Field. Council yesterday extended the changes to the area along the King and Meeting Street corridor, north of Calhoun. The old designation for most of these areas was called 3x and allowed the height of a building to be three times the distance from the center of the road to the edge of the structure. Under this zoning, some buildings would have been allowed to exceed 90 feet or so. Under the new zoning, the height will be limited to 55 feet over the first 100 feet of the building's depth but the maximum height can go to 80 ft over the remaining depth, though 100 feet in an area near the Crosstown.

Council had no objection to this rezoning but some members asked why the small area immediately north of Calhoun, along King Street, was not being changed. The City argued that buildings there such as St Michaels Church, The Francis Marion Hotel and the old Library were generally in excess of 100 ft so a change was not meaningful. But possibly more important was the fact that the City was considering plans for a new hotel. The change in zoning now would be unfair, it said, as all plans had been submitted on the basis of the old zoning. The City was not sure what the ultimate height of the hotel would be but likely it would be greater than 80 ft and amount to 7 or 8 stories.

Strange that the rezoning of this part of the City lagged by some months the rezoning of other parts of the City. You would have thought it would have all been done together. Maybe if they had been, the developer would not have been advanced in its plans and the argument for a smaller structure would have been harder to reject. Council approved the City's request.

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