By Stan Welch
The battle over a proposed two cent hospitality tax for the unincorporated parts of the county appears to be shaping up along the conventional lines that every proposed tax seems to draw.
District Six Councilman Ken Waters is sponsoring the proposed ordinance that would impose a two cent tax on every dollar spent on prepared foods and beverages within the county. Waters, who has been conducting a series of town hall meetings through his district to gather public input, has received a mixed response.
While Powdersville has traditionally led the county in the rate of growth that it experiences, the development of athletic and recreational facilities has lagged behind, in the opinion of many who live in the area. John Harvin, a businessman in the area who is involved in the recreational community, supports the tax.
“I have two sons and as they get older and start playing team sports, the challenge will be to find them the opportunities they might want. Right now, for instance, if a child from Powdersville wants to play baseball, they have to go to Greenville County to their fields. We have Dolly Cooper Park, but without the sustainable revenue stream that this hospitality tax will provide, Dolly Cooper will never become the gem of Powdersville that it can and should be.”
Under the proposed ordinance, soccer fields, ball fields and additional parking would be constructed at the Dolly Cooper site. Currently, there is only an ADA compliant canoe and kayak launch at the site.
Waters agrees, saying that the only way for his district to get a return on the investment is to pass the tax for the county areas.
“Every town in the county already has this tax. So when our folks go out to eat in one of the towns, they pay the tax, but they get nothing for it,” Waters said. “With the county wide tax, they will see the benefits. And they will contribute as well, since so many travelers get off at the Powdersville exits to eat.”
Estimates by the county finance department indicate that approximately forty per cent of the projected annual income of two million dollars would be paid by interstate travelers and out of county visitors.
Harvin said that anyone who wants to pay forty per cent of his property tax bill is welcome to do so. “This approach just makes so much sense, it seems like the way to go to me.”
Despite significant benefits projected for the areas around Williamston, Pelzer and West Pelzer, Councilwoman Cindy Wilson has serious concerns about the proposed tax.
They range from her concern that the affected businesses will face a possible examination of their financial records by the county, in order to confirm the figures reported, to her concerns about the plan to use the annual revenues to pay off a twenty million dollar bond issue.
Wilson’s longevity on the Council started during an era when sometimes as many as three or four bond issues were in effect at one time, resulting in million and millions of dollars in debt. Few if any of those bond issues were linked to a source of revenue to service the debt, placing tremendous strain on the general fund budget.
Wilson frequently reminds the Council that more than eight years of budget austerity is just now bringing the county out of that debt hole, as she calls it. She has expressed her reluctance to revisit those days, and her fear that this ordinance might lead to that.
Wilson is also conducting a series of public meetings to gather input, as is District Four Councilman Tom Allen. Allen has also encountered a pretty gruff welcome at some of his meetings.
At the last Council meeting, several citizens spoke, and openly challenged the Council and the County administration’s integrity in regards to handling revenues. More than one citizen openly accused them of corruption and financial malfeasance.
County administrator Rusty Burns has spoken openly of the benefits that he sees from the tax, if it is passed. He points out that the presence of the Green Pond facility on Lake Hartwell, has had an economic impact of more than twenty six million dollars since it opened.
“And that is without the facility being completely built out,” said Burns.
The project list proposed for the tax includes building an amphitheater at the site, to allow weigh in ceremonies for the several bass tournaments the landing has attracted, as well as additional docks and parking. “When the facility is completed, the potential impact is limitless,” said Burns.
Burns also points out that the revenues created by the tax would relieve the pressure placed on the general fund by the county’s use of general funds to meet recreational costs. He projects that benefit to the various towns as well. “Every town in the county already has this tax in place. But most of the towns who run recreational and athletic programs serve far more children than they have within their town limits. So this county wide tax would relieve a lot of the pressure on their revenues from out side their town limits.”
Pelzer, long the linchpin of recreational programs in the areas surrounding the town, recently discontinued their programs because the costs were so great. The town discovered that only a handful of children from within the town took part, while hundreds of children from the outlying areas took part.
Williamston is assuming much of that burden by expanding its programs. Approximately a half million dollars would be earmarked for the areas surrounding the three towns.
Wilson has also raised concerns about how the monies will be distributed. She also supports putting the issue on the November ballot as a referendum. As it is written now, the ordinance establishing the tax will be voted on by the Council, a method that Waters supports.
“Of all the people I have spoken with or heard from about this, sixty five to seventy per cent support it. I think that we are elected to make decisions on behalf of the majority of the people we represent. I am ready to move forward on this and see where the vote takes us.”