A divided Columbia City Council gave initial approval Tuesday to committing up to $110 million to attract growth to two blighted areas of the city.
Mayor Steve Benjamin was one of the two no votes. He later told The State newspaper that his reason is that hes working on a new financing plan that would use the citys reserves instead to creating taxing districts to attract private developers to the Innovista and the North Main Street area, including the Bull Street project.
Benjamin said he and city manager Steve Gantt are studying whether the citys $180 million in reserve accounts can be tapped to use as seed money to pay to install water and sewer lines, streets and other amenities on a project-by-project basis at the 183-acre site where Greenville developer Bob Hughes is planning what would become the citys largest new neighborhood.
Property taxes generated from the projects as they are added to the tax rolls would reimburse the citys reserves, Benjamin said. He declined to provide more details because Gantt has yet to draft a formal proposal. But the plan is akin to how many local governments build industrial parks.
I want to look at creative ways to skin this cat, Benjamin said after the 5-2 vote to proceed with a new plan to establish tax increment financing districts similar to the one that allowed the Vista to burgeon from a warehouse area to one of Columbias premier entertainment and retail areas.
Benjamins vote also could be viewed as a message to Hughes, who is in the late stages of negotiating key elements of his project: land-use zoning, a detailed plan that would spell out construction plans and his final request for public money for amenities in the neighborhood of homes, apartments, parks and commercial areas.
The other opposing vote came from Councilwoman Leona Plaugh, who spent an hour raising questions about the taxing districts. Among her biggest concerns are:
• That city taxpayers might have to cover the repayment of debt on the infrastructure if projects are not built fast enough to generate sufficient taxes to meet the payments.
• That the economy is not producing enough demand from developers to support new construction in both parts of the city at the same time.
Im very concerned about the economic viability of the city, Plaugh, a former city manager, said.
Benjamin said he deliberated long and hard about his vote, deciding to oppose it only within the past few days.
Too much property in Columbia already is tax exempt because it belongs to state government, the University of South Carolina or other organizations that do not pay property taxes. He cited often-stated numbers that range from 60 percent to 67 percent of all city property does not generate taxes for the city.
Carving out more than 1,000 acres in two areas of the city and keeping most of the taxes they produce within their boundaries would put even more strain on the rest of the tax-paying public, he said.
Lastly, Benjamin said that the two biggest projects in the Innovista $51.4 million for a riverfront park and $25.6 million for the extension of Greene Street to the Congaree River, including a vehicular and pedestrian overpass might be constructed if Richland County residents approve an additional penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase this fall.
Part of the roughly $1 billion that would raise over a couple of decades would be spent on those two projects because they fall under the guidelines of using the money on roads and greenway improvements, he said.
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.