Walk down Cayce’s restaurant row on Knox Abbott Drive and you’ll find Steve Seremetis, who fears that increasing Lexington County’s sales tax on the heels of the city’s 2 percent hospitality tax will force customers away from Tony’s Pizzalicious.
Closer to the Congaree River, Kingsman restaurant owners Mike Deevey and Benjamin Griffin say they’re hearing from a lot of confused customers who already have noticed the price increases driven by the hospitality tax.
You’ll also find some bitterness toward funding Cayce’s historical museum through the hospitality tax, even though the hospitality tax would be halved if the sales tax increase passes.
But while there’s lots of talk, what you won’t find is much activism or even a clear consensus on the upcoming countywide referendum to raise the sales tax from 7 percent to 8 percent.
“People just pretty much shrug their shoulders and bear it,” said Jimmy Williams, whose family owns the Lizard’s Thicket chain, which has a restaurant a block up and across the street from The Kingsman.
At Tony’s, Seremetis said he’s worried about customers getting confused by the recent price increases from the hospitality tax, so he has pressed his staff to explain them.
“I informed my staff about the 2 percent increase in Cayce, but for the Lexington tax, I’m not informed myself,” he said.
Deevey and Griffin say they’ve had to explain the tax-driven increases to Kingsman customers.
“We have a lot of guys coming in here who eat the same thing every time, and they know the prices,” Deevey said.
At the Just Us Cafe just beyond 12th Street, assistant manager Robert Kruger said customers have had mixed responses and that some have even doubted the hospitality tax was real.
“I’ve had reactions from people who know the 2 percent went into effect Oct. 1 to people who think we’re trying to pull the wool over their eyes,” he said.
If the county’s sales tax increase passes, the hospitality tax will be halved to compensate, said Shaun Greenwood, assistant city manager in charge of collecting the tax.
At its full 2 percent, the hospitality tax is projected to raise $644,000 a year, half of which would go to support the Cayce historical museum and to maintain the city’s segment of the Congaree Riverwalk, he said. The rest will go to general government operations.
At The Original D’s Restaurant, around the corner from the Kingsman, owner Billy Rentz said the city shouldn’t be singling out restaurants to fund the museum.
But Museum Director Leo Redmond said he doesn’t think restaurants will be hurt. Richland County’s sales tax increase two years ago to 8 percent hasn't kept people – including those from Lexington County – away from its restaurants, he said.
The museum, a replica of a 1765 trading post, has budget of $78,000 for this year and draws about 8,000 visitors annually, Redmond said.
Without the hospitality tax money, the 23-year-old museum off 12th Street would have to close, he said.
Still, the museum shouldn’t be a priority, said Matt McKinley, owner of Murray’s Neighborhood Grill on Charleston Highway. He said watching the hospitality tax pass City Council in June despite his and other restaurant owners’ opposition has made him less receptive to the possible countywide tax increase on the Nov. 4 ballot.
“I don’t see how it could positively affect the community,” he said.
But Redmond hopes restaurant owners can look past the hospitality tax and assess the possible sales tax increase with fresh eyes.
In Cayce, for instance, one of the projects to be funded by a sales tax increase would be a $10 million improvement to the water system south of Knox Abbott Drive and around Frink Street.
“I hope people will look into it seriously and see what they’ll get out of it,” Redmond said.
This article was produced as part of this semester’s J-471 Intermediate Reporting & Production class at the University of South Carolina School of Journalism and Mass Communications.