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City Council, October 22

First step in funding the African American museum
More information on 2014 budget
Marc Knapp

Construction of an African American museum focusing on Charleston’s historic role in slavery has been a hope of the City for over a decade. That hope now seems likely to be realized. Last night, Council approved the issue of $12.5 million in revenue bonds to be financed by Accommodation Tax revenues. The proceeds of the bond issue would be used to help fund the $75 million estimated cost of the museum. Mayor Riley also said that the County had agreed to provide $12.5 million and he expected to obtain the balance of needed funds from state, federal and private sources. Construction was likely to begin in 2015.

The Mayor showed Council a conceptual plan of the museum. The museum building, about 42,300 square feet, would be on the originally proposed 1.5 acre site adjacent to the Aquarium parking garage. But the grounds would extend to a narrow strip of land along the southern edge of the Aquarium and to a wharf to be constructed at the water’s edge. He noted that Gadsden’s wharf where most slaves disembarked, was once located in the museum area.

The Mayor and a number of other speakers lauded the City’s plan. They spoke of the historic role of Charleston in the slave trade and the need for a museum in the City. The Mayor said that 80% of all African Americans could trace the lineage to at least one antecedent who disembarked at Charleston. Council members were also told that the economic benefit to Charleston from the museum was estimated at $30 million a year. More details of the plans were to be given by the Mayor today at a special news conference.

Nobody expressed concerns about the project and indeed, we would not have expected any. But there is a question about the Accommodation Tax funding. We think funding using Accommodation Tax revenues is appropriate. But the revenues taken out for funding interest and amortization on the revenue bonds – possibly about $1 million a year - will leave a large hole in revenues for other parties. In 2013, the City budgeted for $4 million in Accommodation Tax receipts. Of this, $2.4 million was committed to entities such as the Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Gaillard project etc. The balance of available funds, $1.49 million, was distributed to about 40 groups or entities such as Spoleto, South East Wildlife Exposition and the Aquarium. The question is whether the City will be able to continue funding these groups and entities and at what level?

We note that the 2013 budget assumed Accommodation Tax revenues of $4 million, an increase of $500,000 over the previous year. We don’t know what the City is budgeting for 2014 and 2015 but considering the City’s growing tourist traffic, revenues seems certain to climb higher. If revenue grew by $500,000 in each of these years, as was expected for 2013, the City may be able to fund the museum and still maintain a high level of distributions to the other entities. We will get a better idea in upcoming meetings when the City reveals its budgets for next year.

On reflection, we'd note that the estimated cost of the museum has more than doubled since it was first proposed. Also, the the City was looking originally to private entities largely to fund construction. We also wonder how accurate is the City's estimate of the cost. Its record on cost estimates for large projects is hardly unblemished.

And speaking of budgets, the Mayor gave more information about the 2014 budgets. He continued to say that no tax increase was planned for the General Fund, but presently projected spending exceeds projected revenues by several millions dollars. However, he expected to provide Council with an achievable balance budget by November 19. He also indicated that the City was planning on contracting out garbage and trash collection services for the outer areas of Johns Island and West Ashley. The move would alleviate extra workload on present employees, maintain the integrity of services, and save $65,000 in 2014. Savings should be higher in subsequent years.

The proposed change in trash collection precipitated discussion as to whether there was benefit in joining with some of the public service districts and the Town of James Island. Staff told Council that these things were possible but the City should implement its present plans before moving further with contracting.

Council members also had questions about the 2014 Capital Spending budget. Who determines the priorities and could members see projects that were being considered but were not making the budget list? It seemed the Mayor was largely responsible for determining priorities but we thought we heard him say that he was responsive to all requests by Council members. A list of potential projects would be provided at the forthcoming budget sessions.

The move by the City to establish staggered terms and term limits for members of the Planning Commission also generated much discussion. Presently there are no staggered terms and term limits. The City is proposing that a term should be 3 years and that a Commissioner serve a maximum of 3 consecutive terms. The proposed change was to be implemented at the beginning of 2014 with 3 commissioners coming off the Commission.

The City said the move was prompted by the desire to have more of the communities in the City represented. Although no criticism was made of the board, many of the members had served for a long period and there needed to be scope for new members.

Council members were not enthusiastic about what was proposed and voted to defer the issue while the City studied the issue more. Members were concerned that 3 members would be replaced at the beginning of next year, about the availability of good people to serve and with no remuneration, and about the term limits themselves. And there was the lingering question, never asked though, was the City trying to get rid of some Commissioners?

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