The York County Council has given preliminary approval for a new committee that will increase council oversight as to how the county’s growing hospitality tax dollars are distributed.
The measure comes after months of council disagreement over how h-tax funds are allocated and whether the county should continue to support its tourism arm, the Rock Hill/York County Convention Visitors Bureau. But some aren’t convinced the change will do much to quell current debate.
Since 2007, the county has collected more than $10.3 million in h-tax funds, which are primarily levied on food and beverage sales in the county’s unincorporated areas such as Lake Wylie. Municipalities such as Rock Hill levy and spend their own h-tax funds and do not contribute to county coffers.
The new committee would consist of 11 members, seven of whom would be appointed directly by each councilman to represent his district. The remaining four would be ex-officio members, also appointed by council.
All would serve as unpaid members for three-year terms and prioritize funding for projects that promote sports or recreation, according to a draft ordinance council members unanimously approved Feb. 3.
A public hearing for the proposal will be held Monday night, and a final vote on the decision will be made in March.
Councilman Bruce Henderson, who represents Clover and Lake Wylie, said the new ordinance isn’t “totally” what he wanted, but said he hopes it will make for “more true representation from the different areas, and for the county as a whole.”
“No one can stack the deck with this,” said Henderson, who has advocated for his district to receive its “fair share” of h-tax dollars.
His district contributes the second largest chunk of the county’s total h-tax collections, according to staff projections in December. Councilman Michael Johnson’s district, which includes Fort Mill and Tega Cay, makes up the largest share, at close to 50 percent.
Henderson called his rejected application for a 50-acre park in the booming Lake Wylie area in spring 2013 an uphill battle that was “like pulling teeth.”
The current advisory committee has six slots occupied by hospitality experts who work closely with the CVB. Under the proposed ordinance, the new committee would make recommendations to council and “prioritize” applications, but the final decision on how to spend the money would be made by council.
Some aren’t convinced the new structure will improve efficiency or cut down on council bickering.
“Those who play rough-house on council, their appointments are going to be more rough-house on this committee,” said Councilman Bump Roddey, who represents a portion of Rock Hill. “That makes it worse.”
Roddey has been an ardent supporter of the CVB, and expressed concern the new committee might just amplify existing debate because each council member most likely will appoint an “extension” of himself. Roddey said the larger size of the new committee might actually make gaining consensus more difficult.
CVB Executive Director Lisa Meadows has encouraged the council to appoint members who have experience and a stake in the hospitality industry.
“It was nice to see a unanimous vote for a change,” Meadows said of the Feb. 3 council vote. But she added that the change doesn’t make “a great deal of difference,” aside from giving council members the power to handpick appointees.
By the numbers
Johnson, who had led the charge on redrafting the ordinance, said that a sports-themed focus for the county would be similar to the athletic fields of Myrtle Beach.
The ordinance specifically calls for setting up projects that will have a “demonstrable impact upon tourism” and create facilities that are “self-sustainable.” The county’s absence of a parks department means that facility maintenance must be covered by other municipalities.
County h-tax funds have gone toward a variety of tourism-related efforts, such as advertising for local festivals and capital projects such as ballfields and museums. But arguments by Councilmen Joe Cox and Henderson have focused on whether individual districts are benefiting equally from the tax.
Cox, who represents Western York County, was concerned that a large chunk of the funds goes toward operating the CVB, which currently has five full-time staff members and is headquartered at Baxter Hood Center near York Technical College. In the fall he suggested the council consider slashing the CVB’s total budget and reduce staff.
Meadows said her staff already has been cut to the bone with five full-time and two part-time employees. Any further cuts would “hurt” the bureau’s efforts, which are focused on emphasizing the county’s history and culture, she said.
While staff work to attract “leisure travelers,” Meadows said the bureau must actively solicit large conferences and group tours, which make up the bulk of the county’s tourists.
The council blocked a proposal by the CVB in September to purchase a one-acre plot in Rock Hill’s burgeoning Riverwalk area, with some citing the high cost of the land deal and others questioning the necessity of a physical welcome center at a time when visitors increasingly use online resources to plan trips.
From 2007 to 2013, approximately $3.5 million of total h-tax funds have gone toward the CVB. Of that amount, $1.8 million went directly to operations, according to a county budget memo.
A county ordinance allows for up to 20 percent of the previous year’s h-tax revenue to be spent on operational expenses, such as office rent and salaries. State regulations give counties the option of increasing that percentage to 50 percent.
In December, staff recommended the council revise the ordinance to include an updated percentage that reflects current funding trends, which currently exceed the 20 percent threshold.
The second largest recipient of h-tax funds was the county’s Culture and Heritage Museums, which include historical sites such as Historic Brattonsville in McConnells. The CHS system has received $1.1 million since 2007.
Several council members have proposed reducing funding for the museum system to make it more self-sustaining.
“The real fight is going to come when we determine the percentages the CVB can use for operations,” said Roddey.