Columbia, SC — THE EFFORT to enact two special tax districts that would generate money to pay for improvements in north Columbia and USC’s research campus took some interesting twists last week.
It started with the revelation that the proposal to divert up to $110 million in future taxes from countywide and citywide services to fund improvements in the designated areas could be voted on at Columbia City and Richland County council meetings Tuesday. City Council would consider final approval while County Council would hold a public hearing and consider the second of three required readings.
While I probably shouldn’t have been, I was shocked.
The councils and Richland District 1’s board, all of which must approve the tax districts, had postponed action until after the Nov. 6 vote on the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase. Silly me, I assumed that if voters agreed to a sales tax that would generate $1 billion over 22 years for buses, roads and other projects, city and county leaders wouldn’t have the audacity to revive the tax increment financing districts, known as TIFs .
I was wrong.
Just as it seemed that the TIFs might be approved, there came another turn of events.
Columbia Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine left her City Council meeting to appear at the Richland County Council public hearing and ask that the TIFs be deferred “in light of a lot of questions that have come up, mainly in the last few days.”
“Defer any further actions on these plans until we have an opportunity to make sure that we have all questions in and answered,” she said. “And at the time that you feel it’s appropriate to move forward, then we can do that at that time.”
“We just didn’t want anybody to feel rushed by the process, and with the holidays upon us we just wanted you all to know that we are working on those answers …”
It’s odd that Councilwoman Devine, one of the staunchest supporters of the TIFs, would say slow down, take your time, vote when you’re ready.
County Council might very well have been on its way to moving the TIFs one step from final approval and the City Council member who has worked two years to get the matter this far said hold up. What’s up?
Ms. Devine told me Friday that she wanted action on the tax districts deferred so that lawyers can make sure that all three bodies that must approve the TIFs have agreements with the same language in them. With attorneys going back and forth making changes, things were at a point where one body might approve language that the others don’t.
But some members from both councils told me Ms. Devine sensed the votes weren’t there to approve one or both tax districts. Postponing any action was a preemptive strike to keep the TIFs from being defeated.
Ms. Devine said that if there was a possibility of either TIF being defeated, it was news to her. “No one has told me votes were shaky.”
She said that if the TIFs were in peril, then some officials had misled her. She then added: “If I felt the votes were shaky, then, yes, I probably would have held” the TIF vote up.
Ms. Devine said it could be February or March before the TIFs come back up for a vote.
That was early Friday.
Later that day, I would learn that one — both? — of the TIFs might not be enacted at all if Mayor Steve Benjamin gets his way. The mayor has said he is working on alternative ways of funding projects in designated areas without using a TIF. He hasn’t provide many details, but on Friday, he told The State that with the passage of the sales tax, he doesn’t think there is a need for a TIF in north Columbia. The area will receive $35.4 million for streetscaping and remaining needs could be met in other ways, he said. The sales tax also would pay for $50 million in improvements in Innovista, but it’s unclear what the mayor will propose regarding the TIF for that area.
I don’t believe either TIF should be enacted. It doesn’t make sense to siphon dollars away from city, county and school services for speculative projects.
So, I’m anxious to see what the mayor proposes. After last week, I’m ready for anything.
Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or email@example.com.