SOME COLUMBIA and Richland County taxpayers likely are scratching their heads in wonderment as the city and county councils fund projects that aren't key to day-to-day operations at a time when money for basic, essential services is limited.
The State Museum wants - and appears on the verge of getting - Columbia and Richland, along with Lexington County, to give it $2.5 million over the next five years to help it build a planetarium, observatory and 4-D theater. Richland has bought land and intends to develop a mega-sports complex in Northeast Richland. In addition, Richland is well into a multi-million-dollar renovation of the Township Auditorium.
Given the chance, Columbia and Richland County officials would quickly (and rightly) note that they're funding these endeavors with money from the prepared food tax, which by law can be used only for tourism-related items, not day-to-day services.
But most taxpayers don't differentiate one pot of money from another. Tax money is tax money, and ought to be put to its highest and best use.
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If only the Legislature felt this way. State lawmakers have handcuffed cities and counties in a number of ways that prevent them from putting taxes generated locally to their best use. For the longest time, local governments had to rely almost solely on property taxes to raise revenue, regardless of the intended use. Lawmakers have given cities and counties a few options - from sales taxes to an all-but-impossible-to-implement impact fee - but have severely restricted their use. Just as hospitality taxes are restricted to tourism projects, impact fees, even if they could be implemented more readily, can't be used to construct schools, the biggest infrastructure cost in a growing community.
What sense does it make to give local governments the authority to raise new revenue when the money can't be used to fund those things that are of highest priority? There's nothing wrong with museums or parks or entertainment halls - they have their place in our community and can add to the quality of life. But when basic services are lacking, they aren't a priority.
To make matters worse, the Legislature has capped the amount of money cities and counties can raise through property taxes. In other words, our state's elected representatives have put an arbitrary limit on cities' and counties' ability to respond to the needs of their communities while enhancing their ability to spend on less-than-essential projects.
To understand how absurd the whole matter is, consider the dilemma in which Richland County finds itself: The county, led to believe the state would relocate the State Farmers Market from Bluff Road to another site in Richland, spent $4 million to purchase a new site. But the state backed out, leaving the county holding the bag - and a hefty mortgage. The county had planned to pay off the debt on the land using money from the prepared food tax. But now that the land won't be used for a market, it's likely the county will have to find another way - be it the now-capped property tax or some other source - to pay for the property.
Why put local governments in such a position? State lawmakers should stop their meddlesome ways and remove the strings that hinder local officials as they try to do what voters elect them to do - govern.