York County hospitality tax panel holds off on new tourism funding criteria

Producing more questions than answers, York County’s new hospitality tax committee decided this week to maintain the status quo on current funding requests as it lays out criteria for future spending.

The York County Council created the 11-member advisory committee earlier this year, but it isn’t expected to name the final three members until it meets Aug. 18. Funding requests came in three months ago, so committee members voted Wednesday to allow their liaison to the County Council to score the projects and make recommendations.

Hospitality tax money can only be spent on projects or events that promote tourism in the county.

Mikki Rentschler, finance and administration director with the Rock Hill/York County Convention & Visitors Bureau, also facilitated the previous committee that recommended projects to the County Council. She has a list of groups seeking funding, including the Arts Council of York County, the South Carolina Strawberry Festival in Fort Mill and York’s Summerfest.

The only application she received that wouldn’t meet the previous requirements was for Riversweep in Lake Wylie, she said, since the sponsoring organization is the Catawba Riverkeeper Foundation in Charlotte. It’s possible Rentschler and the committee would reconsider if the event partnered with a South Carolina-based group.

“You would get crucified in the press if you funded a North Carolina group with South Carolina hospitality tax money,” committee member Jayne Scarborough said.

By allowing one more funding cycle on the previous system, advisory committee members hope to tackle bigger questions of what their role is and what projects should get a share of the 2-cent tax the county collects on the sale of food and drink in unincorporated areas.

The committee has to determine whether all groups – nonprofits, individuals, churches, businesses, groups receiving other county funding – should be allowed to request hospitality tax money, whether those groups should be prioritized, or whether decisions should be made based on the merits of the projects themselves.

County attorney Michael Kendree said there’s “great discretion given” as to how the committee operates.

“The driving force, in my mind, would be the areas of consideration,” he said.

Committee members expressed concern, for example, over whether a developer could seek funding for an amenity that would promote tourism, while benefiting from a subsequent boost in property value that might follow.

“If we start driving that bus,” Scarborough said, “then you’ve got a conflict of interest.”

Committee members said they want to be open to groups looking for funding, but they want to make sure the investment would be sound.

“The worst you could do is have this seen out there as a pot of gold,” Scarborough said.

Pace of pay

The committee held off voting on new criteria, as it awaits the appointment of the final three members. Committee member Watts Huckabee suggested master-planning county hospitality needs before making funding decisions.

“We’ve got to have a pretty solid idea how successful a project can be,” he said.

Committee member Tom Smith, who has proposed building a county park on 50 acres set aside at Crowders Creek since before he left the County Council in 2010, said there’s a sense in some unincorporated areas that it already has taken too long for a return on investment.

“There’s a certain frustration level in these outlying areas,” he said.

But work remains. Currently there’s no county business license, meaning there’s no direct method of informing a new restaurant it has to pay the tax. Huckabee said having “no set system” for a tax that brings in $1.8 million a year is an immediate issue.

“It’s not hard to see what our funding is doing,” he said. “It’s increasing significantly.”

Smith wants less weight given to how many overnight stays in hotels a project might generate. Those stays should be a bonus but not a requirement, he said, since more rural areas don’t have hotels, but still bring in day-trippers who spend money in the county.

Plus, he said, overnight stays already are addressed by the county’s accommodations tax.

“This is not an accommodations tax,” he said. “This is a hospitality tax.”

The committee is scheduled to meet again on Aug. 19, the day after its final members are expected to be named by the County Council.