York County councilman questions fairness of hospitality tax

adouglas@heraldonline.comApril 29, 2013 

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York County Councilman Bruce Henderson’s battle to build a new 50-acre park in Lake Wylie continued Monday night.

He and supporters of the Crowders Creek recreational park plan want county leaders to set aside $5 million to $6 million from hospitality tax money for the project.

It isn’t “morally sound” that his Lake Wylie/Clover-based District 2 pumped $352,000 into the county’s hospitality tax coffers last year, Henderson said, but has little to show for it.

“It’s not fair, and it’s getting to the point now that it’s unacceptable,” he said during a County Council finance and operations meeting held to discuss hospitality tax distribution.

Visitors and residents in unincorporated areas of York County such as Lake Wylie pay a 2 percent tax, known as the hospitality tax, on prepared food and non-alcoholic beverages. The money pays for projects and events that bring tourists to York County.

Rock Hill, Fort Mill, York and Clover also levy a 2 percent hospitality tax on food and beverages and keep the money to build tourism facilities in their areas. The town of Sharon has a 1 percent hospitality tax.

Across the state, 14 counties and 44 cities, including Lancaster, use a hospitality tax to boost tourism efforts.

Local governments are finding ways to use the tax to encourage business investment, keep young people in small towns and pay for “quality of life” facilities without raising local property taxes, said Jeff Shacker, field services manager for the Municipal Association of South Carolina.

Between June 2011 and July 2012, York County’s hospitality tax brought in $1.7 million – a $22,000 gain from the year before.

More than half of last year’s tax total was paid by residents and visitors in District 1, which is made up of the Fort Mill and Tega Cay areas, said Councilman Michael Johnson.

Henderson and many supporters of the Crowders Creek park idea say residents – not visitors – are paying the bulk of hospitality tax in District 1 and District 2.

A new park would drive sports tourism and benefit those who live in Lake Wylie and Clover, Henderson says.

There’s a disparity between what York County spends in other areas, such as Rock Hill, and Clover and Lake Wylie, said former District 2 Councilman Tom Smith.

“There’s a history (in District 2) of trying to get things done,” he said. “It’s like pulling teeth.”

Henderson and Smith questioned why more than half of this year’s hospitality tax money was used for operating costs and promotions at the Rock Hill-York County Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The county’s contribution to run the Convention and Visitors Bureau has grown over the past five years.

Between fiscal year 2007 and 2012, the county took in more than $8 million in hospitality tax. About one-third of that went to the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

As budget talks for next year continue, the Convention and Visitors Bureau plans to ask for less money than last year, said Mikki Rentschler, the group’s director of finance and administration.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau’s need for more money over the past five years has grown because it has increased tourism recruitment and promotion efforts, she said.

Money from the county to the Convention and Visitors Bureau has more than tripled over the past five years, according to York County records.

In that same time period, the county’s hospitality tax proceeds have grown by about 18 percent.

The same money that Henderson wants for his district is the money the Convention and Visitors Bureau wants to build a new office and visitor center in Rock Hill’s Riverwalk.

The location is ideal, Rentschler said, because of its proximity to Interstate 77, but many places close to the highway would be feasible, including some spaces outside of Rock Hill.

Members of the County Council threw out several ideas for dealing with the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s request and Henderson’s push for a new park:

• York County could reduce some of its funding to the Convention and Visitors Bureau and ask Rock Hill, Fort Mill, York, Clover and Sharon to help pay for its operations or the cost to build a new visitor center, Councilman Joe Cox said.

• The county could borrow money for both projects and reduce other spending from the hospitality tax account, Johnson said.

• The county could ask Rock Hill to consider helping with landscaping and upkeep if the Convention and Visitors Bureau moves to Riverwalk and stays in Rock Hill, Councilman Bump Roddey said.

• The Lake Wylie area could incorporate itself, charge a hospitality tax and keep the money for building its own tourism and recreational facilities, Cox said.

Monday’s discussion gave Henderson hope, he said.

At a council meeting earlier this month, Henderson lobbied for an overhaul of hospitality tax distribution, saying that his district should get to keep the tax collected there and perhaps build a park.

State law allows for counties and cities to separate the money for certain districts, Shacker said, as long as local laws provide for that distribution and all uses are tourism-related.

After Monday’s meeting, Henderson said he doesn’t want more than 25 percent of District 2’s hospitality tax money being spent in areas such as Rock Hill.

Also Monday, the County Council unanimously approved paying $21,500 to the Waters Consulting Group of Dallas, Texas, to help hire York County’s next manager. Within three months, the council could be interviewing candidates from a small pool of semi-finalists.

Last week, the council fired Strategic Government Resources, the first consultant it hired to run the search for former County Manager Jim Baker’s replacement.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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