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September 3, 2014

York County Council meets to vote on tax district extension

One week after the Rock Hill school board formally objected to an extension of the special tax district for another 10 years, the York County Council deferred sending a letter to the city agreeing to the extension.

Rock Hill’s Knowledge Park project could be in trouble.

One week after the Rock Hill school board formally objected to an extension of the special tax district for another 10 years, the York County Council deferred sending a letter to the city agreeing to the extension.

Some council members expressed concern about whether the extension should go forward at all. Thursday, council members will meet in a specially called meeting to give an up or down vote to the proposal before Rock Hill City Council holds its own hearing on the district Monday. The final outcome may depend on which councilmembers can make it to the meeting.

“Our clerk has said one councilman may not be able to make it, and (another) we’re still waiting to hear back from,” said council Chairman Britt Blackwell after the special meeting was announced late Wednesday afternoon.

The meeting follows the council’s failure to agree to an extension at Tuesday’s meeting, after a debate that largely revolved around whether one council member would personally benefit from the plan.

Councilman Curwood Chappell called on his colleagues to push back the vote because council member Chad Williams owns property that would now be included in the tax district, citing it as an example of the council needing more time to review the proposal. Williams owns an old theater building on West Main Street.

“I would ask our lawyer, our (county) manager and the council that we delay action on this tonight,” Chappell said.

Williams told his colleagues he was unaware his property would be included in the tax district until the council received a list of properties two weeks earlier. After discussing it with the county attorney, he said he didn’t feel the need to recuse himself from the vote, and reiterated that position when reached for comment Wednesday.

“My taxes don’t go down because of this, and if you listen to some of the people arguing against it, it’s unclear there would be any benefit 30 years from now,” Williams said. “You could make the argument that if a countywide ordinance affects all the property in the county, then all the council members would have to recuse themselves.”

Councilman William “Bump” Roddey, a supporter of the extension, said the objection was just a way to remove a likely vote in favor of the measure from the equation.

“If we can get one voting member to abstain, it lessens the changes of this passing,” Roddey said. “It’s more difficult to get four votes out of six than four out of seven.”

County attorney Michael Kendree advised the council members they needed to give the city of Rock Hill some indication of whether they are likely to approve the extension before the city’s meeting on the subject, which is why a new meeting had to be called two days after the last one.

The tax increment financing district, or TIF, doesn’t lower or raise property taxes in the downtown Rock Hill area, but it does allow the city to finance public improvements using any increases in tax revenue during the term of the district.

Stephen Turner, Rock Hill’s economic development director, said adding Main Street to the tax district makes sense because it acts as a “gateway” into the proposed Knowledge Park area.

“The boundaries of the district right now are a kind of inverted ‘C,’ with the open area being Main Street and Black Street,” he said.

The city wants to extend the special tax district, first approved in 2004, for a decade past its current sunset date in 2029. Redevelopment plans for the area fell apart due to the recession and the untimely death of a key property owner, Turner said, and it will now take more time for the area to generate enough revenue to pay back the bonds Rock Hill issued for infrastructure improvements.

But because all taxing entities have to agree to put any increased revenue into the tax district, the city needs agreement from York County and the Rock Hill school district to extend the term.

The County Council isn’t the only one having trouble with the idea. On Aug. 25, the Rock Hill school board voted to reject a similar letter of agreement with the city. Schools are primarily funded by taxes on commercial property, and Chairman Jim Vining said he wants to see more information from the city about its revenue projections and its bonding plans. On Wednesday, Vining said he had not yet received that information.

“If we do not have it by (Sept.) 8th, we’re not going to be able to discuss it at our September meeting, and then the earliest we could act on it is our meeting on the fourth Monday in October,” Vining said.

County Council members also expressed concerns about the length of the extension and how the money will be used.

“There are no benchmarks for when they expect to achieve anything,” said County Councilman Joe Cox. “I don’t want to commit other council members too far into the future, and the county will have no jurisdiction over what they do with the money after it’s taken.”

But Cox concedes if Williams does not recuse himself, the measure is likely to get the council’s approval.

“My position is a little of something is better than nothing,” Blackwell said. “If this can create jobs and payroll taxes in the area, we have nothing to lose.”

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