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County Council, July 19

Citizens' views to be sought on another sales tax referendum
North Charleston scores $300,000 Accommodation Tax funding for shuttle
Warwick Jones

There were a number of important items on last night’s Finance Committee meeting agenda. The most important related to a referendum for another half-cent sales tax. Similar to the existing half-cent sales tax, the proceeds would be used for roads, greenbelts and CARTA. As the Post and Courier in today’s edition gave a detailed account of discussion, we’ll limit ourselves to a summary.

Council member Summey “fell on his sword” in his attempt to put the item on last night's agenda, Council member Rawl opined in reflecting the criticism it evoked. Notwithstanding, it is an issue worthwhile discussing, he said. Council member Summey was looking for a referendum at the end of this year but it seemed most Council members considered this virtually impossible or undesirable. So the issue became placing the referendum on the ballot for 2014.

A number of Council members in particular Schweers and Qualey were not happy about the proposal. They thought the timing was inappropriate and citizens unlikely to approve it. The proposed tax would come not even half way through the life of the present half-cent sales tax. It would also push the overall sales tax to levels close to the highest in the state. It would also follow an increase in the County’s property tax millage rate. Council member Condon said that Council should review the results of the current half-cent sales tax before asking citizens to approve another half-cent sales tax.

In a 5 to 4 vote, the Finance Committee agreed to move ahead with a series of public meetings throughout the County to seek citizens’ views on infrastructure, greenbelt and public transportation needs, and their enthusiasm for another half-cent sales tax. Staff would also review the results of the present half cent sales tax. In the light of all this, a decision would be made on the merits of a referendum in 2014.

A shuttle from the Airport to the North Charleston Convention Center

The request by the City of North Charleston for an annual allocation of $300,000 from the Accommodation Tax surprised us. It was even more surprising to us that Council approved it. The funding was to be used to create a shuttle service, run by CARTA, between the Charleston Airport and the North Charleston Convention Center, calling at hotels and Boeing along the way. Again, it was approved with a 5 to 4 vote with Council members Sass, Schweers, Qualey and Condon opposed. These four Council members were on the losing side of the referendum issue.

The allocations from the 2013 Accommodation Tax budget had already been determined. But a review by staff showed that a surplus existed in the Fund as a result of higher than anticipated receipts for 2012 ($315,000) and higher projected revenues for 2013 ($560.000). After adjusting for a number of items, in particular, statutory allocations for municipalities and the CVB, the surplus amounted to $421,550.

Staff noted in the agenda package that allocations to Outside Agencies amounted to $580,000 in 2009. In 2010 reflecting the harsher economic conditions, the allocation fell to $163,000. Some Council members wanted use the new funds to boost allocations closer to those levels of the past and were clearly very unhappy about the allocation of $300,000 to the City of North Charleston. The amount was disproportionate and unfair for a number of reasons.

Council members Summey and Chairman Pryor were the principal proponents of the $300,000 allocation. Council member Schweers, who was opposed to the allocation noted the letter from Mayor Summey of the City of North Charleston for the request, the relationship between Council member Summey and Mayor Summey, the employment of Chairman Pryor by the City of North Charleston, and Council member Summey’s position of Chairman of CARTA. He wondered out loud whether Chairman Pryor should recuse himself from the vote. Chairman Pryor retorted strongly that he intended to vote. As there was no personal gain, there was no reason for a recusal.

The proponents of the $300,000 allocation point to the importance of the area and the large number of visitors who stay there. There was also the likelihood of reduced traffic congestion as many visitors rent cars simply to get to the nearby hotels. Council member Summey said that the area contained more hotel rooms than the whole of the City of Charleston. He also noted that North Charleston received a 5% rather than the 20% municipality allocation that had been agreed upon in the early years of the Accommodation Tax. But as Council member Schweers pointed out, this low percentage reflected the fact that the City received special funding from the tax when it built the Convention Center. The City was not being shortchanged.

Council member Schweers questioned why this area deserved a special shuttle service. If the County agreed to this proposal why wouldn’t every municipality ask for funding for a shuttle service to its hotels? He also questioned whether the provision of a shuttle would cut into the business of taxies and limousines. He and other Council members noted that the College of Charleston and the CVB were tasked to rank all the requests for funding, a task designed to take the politics out of allocations. They had not been asked to rank the shuttle service.

In his letter, Mayor Summey noted that the requested $300,000 was an estimated one third of the projected annual cost of the service. He also asked that this amount be an annual allocation. Although the present Council may be sympathetic to this request, they cannot bind future Councils to this amount.

Viewers can press Download file to see the allocations to Outside Agencies for 2012 and 2013.(The page will need to be rotated 90 degrees. Sorry, can’t seem to save it right way up!) The highest allocations are for the Aquarium $27,491 and the Patriots Point Development Authority $19,315. Spoleto, arguably the most important single tourist event of the County was allocated $19,315. In comparison with these allocations, that to North Charleston seems very generous.

Relief at last
The residents of Johns Island should have been very happy about the road improvements planned for the island. The plans were made during the time I- 526 was being discussed, and before abandonment . Inexplicably, only modest progress was made in implementing the plans but that changed when the Sea Island Greenway again became a possibility and the Johns Island residents got vocal in their opposition. Where were the improvements that the County promised to alleviate the Island’s traffic problems and negate the necessity to build either the I- 526 extension or the Sea Island Greenway? Unanimously, Council last night approved an approximate $2 million program to address the traffic problems. Viewers can press Download file to see the specific projects.

Other items last night included:

  1. The approval of a ban on smoking in public places in the unincorporated parts of the County.
  2. Another vote by the Administration Policy/Rules Committee (APRC) to disallow an issue before a committee to go to full Council for voting if the committee votes it down. As Council member Schweers and Qualey point out, this rule means that 3 members of a committee (such as the APRC where there are only 5 members) can block a vote being taken by a full Council on the same issue. Council member Summey who has consistently voted to maintain existing policy asked that the issue be put on the agenda for the next Committee meeting. He signaled a willingness to allow all Council members to participate in a discussion of an issue but to still limit voting. However it is possible that state law would not allow what he may propose.

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