York County 1 step closer to creating hospitality tax committee

jzou@heraldonline.comFebruary 17, 2014 

— The York County Council gave secondary approval Monday night to a measure that would create an advisory committee overseeing how the county spends its hospitality tax dollars.

The proposed ordinance would create an 11-member advisory committee appointed directly by the council that would focus on allocating funds for tourism-related capital projects countywide.

One more reading in March is needed before the ordinance becomes law – getting rid of an existing six-member committee currently controlled by the county’s tourism arm, the Rock Hill/York County Convention Visitors Bureau.

The hospitality tax, which is levied primarily on beverage and food sales in unincorporated areas, has become a lightning rod for debate among council members who argue over how the funds should be spent and whether the tax equally benefits districts.

From 2007 to 2013, approximately $3.5 million of total hospitality tax funds have gone toward the visitors bureau itself. Of that amount, $1.8 million accounted for operations, according to a county memo. The second largest recipient of the tax dollars was the county’s museum system.

Councilman Michael Johnson has advocated for a cohesive long-term plan for the funds that focuses on sports venues. Johnson said the new committee will increase council oversight over tax dollars and that the council doesn’t “have access or control” over the current advisory group.

Councilmen Joe Cox and Bruce Henderson also have sought to reduce the visitors bureau’s funding. Cox asked that the council consider reducing the bureau’s operational expenses to half of where it currently stands.

Cox also noted he was apprehensive about sports tourism, noting the county’s absence of a parks department to maintain sites.

“I’m getting very hesitant in getting into parks and rec,” said Cox. “That will be an ongoing cost that will never end.”

All councilmen agreed that a workshop before the final vote is necessary to “hammer out” details regarding how the county will support the Convention and Visitors Bureau in the future.

The bureau’s executive director, Lisa Meadows, said cuts in the bureau’s budget would impact the organization’s effort to solicit large conferences and group tours to the area.

In other action Monday, the council approved an additional $135,000 for consulting work on McConnell’s Highway after residents in the area pushed back on proposed changes, requiring staff to adjust plans.

According to a county memo, engineers encountered “more difficult and time consuming” right-of-way discussions with landowners that lasted more than a year.

The current project calls for widening of a 2.3-mile stretch of the two-lane highway from S.C. 901 to Falls Road. An earlier portion of the project widened 2.7 miles of the road from Falls Road to S.C. 324 for a total of $1.3 million.

Both sets of improvements are funded through the county’s “Pennies for Progress” program, which uses an additional 1-cent sales tax for voter-prioritized road projects.

Program manager Phil Leazer called the right-of-way delay a “wild card,” but emphasized that the county works hand-in-hand with residents and the project is on track and within budget for a total of $13.5 million.

The contract with the STV in Rock Hill was $420,000 in 2008 and covered design, permitting and bidding. Since then, changes in how the project is managed raised contract costs to about $960,000.

Construction, which is estimated to come in at less than $10 million, hasn’t started, but is slated to begin this summer. The project is on track for a winter 2015 completion date, Leazer said.

Engineers noted difficulty in getting homeowners to sign off on land rights needed for widening the road, necessitating “multiple face-to-face meetings, several right-of-way alterations, and even some design changes,” the memo reads.

The bulk of the additional $135,000 will go toward designing a barrier for a homeowner who will be located 9 feet away from the widened road, as well as condensing utility poles with the city of Rock Hill and York Electric Cooperative.

Jie Jenny Zou •  803-329-4062

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