York County Councilman Michael Johnson is leading the charge on reforming how the county’s hospitality tax is spent, calling for a focus on sports tourism and an end to council bickering.
“An emphasis on sports tourism will be the most bang for our buck,” Johnson said to council members this week during a county workshop. The Tega Cay resident suggested the council also consider restructuring the committee overseeing how the hospitality tax – or h-tax – is spent.
The county collects a 2 percent tax on food and beverage sales in unincorporated areas such as Lake Wylie and 1 percent from the western York County towns of Hickory Grove, McConnells, Sharon and Smyrna.
The collected funds support a variety of tourism-related efforts in the county such as advertising for county festivals and events, and operating the Rock Hill/York County Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The incorporated municipalities of Rock Hill, Fort Mill, York, Clover and Tega City levy their own hospitality taxes and are exempt from the county h-tax.
Disagreement over how the funds are spent has increased as county h-tax coffers have grown. From 2011 to 2013, the county raked in more than $5 million in h-tax collections alone. About $4 million of that total has been spent, with a chunk of the funds going toward the convention and visitor’s bureau and the county’s Culture and Heritage Museums.
“If they build it, they will come,” Johnson said Wednesday night of hospitality tax-funded sports fields that could draw large soccer tournaments and fuel even more h-tax funds with visiting teams patronizing local businesses. The idea would be similar to the facilities in development at Myrtle Beach, Johnson said.
He added the projects could be “bonded-out” using h-tax funds and include public-private partnerships for maintenance since the county does not have a parks department of its own.
Johnson’s district, which has contributed about half of the county’s total h-tax funds for the previous two years, includes unincorporated areas home to money-makers such as the Carowinds amusement park.
The other large contributor to the county’s h-tax comes from Councilman Bruce Henderson’s district, which includes the rapidly-expanding Lake Wylie area.
Henderson has been an outspoken proponent of slashing the visitor’s bureau’s funding and having his district recoup more of its taxes after his battle to gain h-tax funding for a Lake Wylie park failed to gain traction earlier this year.
“We were flat out turned down,” Henderson said of his plan to secure up to $6 million to fund the park using the county h-tax. “We just want a reasonable, fair share of our money to come back.”
The county must also decide how much of the collected funds will go toward supporting the visitor’s bureau, which recently came under fire when it tried to purchase land in Rock Hill’s Riverwalk area as the site of a new visitor’s center.
County ordinance allows for up to 20 percent of the previous year’s h-tax revenue to be spent on operation-related expenses such as the visitor’s bureau’s offices and staff. State regulations give counties the option of increasing that percentage to 50 percent.
Staff estimated that about 30 percent of the county’s h-tax currently goes toward the visitor’s bureau and recommended that the council revise the ordinance to include an updated percentage.