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County Council, August 28

Should Council distribute funds to charities?
Despite changes made last year, Council still is split
Warwick Jones

Should Council distribute tax payer’s funds to charities? If so, how should the charities be chosen? These questions generated much debate last year. And despite some tightening of the application and allocation procedures, the questions are still being asked. A discussion on the issues is scheduled for the Council meeting on September 18. But we won’t hold our breath in anticipation of a final resolution.

The allocation of funds out of the General Fund to “Outside Agencies”, and out of Accommodation Fees took up most of yesterday’s Finance Committee Meeting. As Chairman Scott kept on reminding members, the issue was not about the principles of the process and allocation. It was to determine the allocations for this fiscal year. After much discussion, Council agreed to consider the allocations for FY 2008 from the General Fund and Accommodation Fees over the next week and decide on the final figures at the Council meeting on Tuesday. But a broader discussion about the process would be scheduled at the Council meeting thereafter.

Discussion similar to that of last year
In most respects, the discussion on the distribution from the General Fund to Outside Agencies was similar to that of last year, even though there are two new Council members, Schweers and Thurmond. Some Council members would like the whole process abolished. They say Council is not in the business of distributing tax payers’ monies to charities. This sort of decision should be left to tax payers themselves. The Council members falling into this category are Bostic, Thurmond and Schweers. These members did not make any allocations and presumably the $35,000 that each is entitled to distribute, will remain in the General Fund.

Interesting compromise by Council member
Council member McKeown is probably sympathetic to both sides of the issue but argues that some agencies perform services that the County would normally provide. It makes sense from a fiscal point of view to support them to save tax payers’ money. Putting his principles to practice, he made only 3 allocations from his $35,000 entitlement, to the Crisis Ministries, the Red Cross, and the Low Country Food Bank.

The remaining Council members are generally sympathetic to the present process and allocation system. They argue that the charities do much for the community and the amounts involved are not large relative to the County’s budget.

Not enough information
Some Council members remarked last night that they did not have enough information on the charities and entities making request for funds either from the General Fund or Accommodation Fees. More information will be provided to them, but as the County Administrator pointed, the staff had been instructed by Council last year to make changes to the process. He held a volume perhaps 5 inches thick that contained information on the applicants. He noted that the process had become very time consuming and would be come even more so if more data had to be gathered. Led particularly by Council member Condon, Council last year tightened the qualifications of applicants and requirements of reporting and auditing. But clearly, they don’t seem tight enough for some Council members.

Allocation from General Fund and Accommodation Fees are different
Chairman Scott went to some length to point out the differences between the allocations from the General Fund and the Accommodations Fees. The Council has an obligation under State legislation to distribute the Accommodation Fees. The fees are collected from those, largely tourists, patronizing hotels and guest houses. Very simply, the fees are required to be distributed to entities that contribute to bringing tourists to Charleston. He did not say but implied, that funds should not be used for other purposes even if noble and beneficial.

Viewers can see the list of possible recipients and requested amounts for Outside Agencies Download file and Accommodation fees Download file. We are sure viewers, as we do, will have some questions about some of the entities on both lists.

We note that Council Member Darby has not completed his allocations but it was evident at the Council meeting that he intended to use his $35,000 entitlement. No amounts are shown for Council member Schweers, Thurmond and Bostic as they are not making allocations.

Accommodation Fees boosted by higher tourist numbers
In relation to the Accommodation Fee, there was no discussion about specific allocations at the meeting. But one Council member suggested, after learning that accumulated funds were sufficient, that all requests be granted. If all requests were met, the total outlay would be $821,419. This is well above the $582,000 of 2007. We questioned staff about the possible large increase and were told that funds remained from previous years and that the strong tourist numbers had boosted receipts this year.