May 15, 2014

Editorial: Rein in Richland County’s pork-barrel park spending

FORGET ABOUT a chicken in every pot. That’s small potatoes. What about an Olympic-sized swimming pool or expansive water park or mega-sports facility in each corner of the county?

FORGET ABOUT a chicken in every pot. That’s small potatoes. What about an Olympic-sized swimming pool or expansive water park or mega-sports facility in each corner of the county?

That’s the direction Richland County Council is headed with a proposal to use proceeds from the 2 percent hospitality tax to fund a list of grandiose projects that would in effect establish a duplicative, rogue park system. It’s unknown who would operate the proposed facilities or how the county would fund operations. But why let such minor details get in the way?

For years, some County Council members have been itching to spend taxes from prepared foods on big-ticket items in unincorporated areas, whether it makes sense or not. They’ve tried twice with regional projects — a state farmers market in southeast Columbia and a soccer complex in Northeast Richland — and failed. That didn’t stop action on a third, smaller but more unrealistic plan that calls for establishing a 44-acre park to draw tourists to Lower Richland.

It’s understandable that council members desire to fund flashy tourist attractions in unincorporated areas; most of the actual attractions the county supports via hospitality taxes are inside the city, which is typical. But Richland officials shouldn’t manufacture ways to spend the millions of dollars in unincorporated areas out of some misguided sense of wounded pride.

The grandiose idea of distributing elaborate projects across the county only serves to expose the hospitality tax for what it really is: a slush fund that can be spent only on tourism-related projects, as opposed to basic services.

Recently, consultants outlined five new tourist attractions for Richland County — a water park that would be the largest in South Carolina and an arena with more basketball courts than anywhere else in the southeastern United States are among them — that would be paid for using hospitality taxes.

The $50 million-plus construction package would be the second large recreation expenditure in less than a decade. In 2008, the council approved a $50 million expansion of the Richland County Recreation Commission park system, funded by property taxes.

Why build even more recreation projects when the county is just completing a large parks expansion — and struggling to operate those facilities? Compounding the problem, the county doesn’t have a parks department to oversee the proposed facilities, and it’s questionable whether the autonomous Recreation Commission would — or should — take on the job.

Frankly, the commission is having a tough enough time managing what it has. While the council authorized the park improvements, it didn’t factor in the cost of operating the facilities. Recreation officials were fortunate to get operating funds for facilities that opened last year, when the auditor said growth plus a small increase would suffice. But the commission has even more facilities coming on line, and the county must find money to fund them as well.

We’d prefer lawmakers allow cities and counties to spend hospitality taxes to pay for important service and operational needs rather than force local officials to invent ways to use these public dollars.

Until that day comes, Richland County Council must manage these funds wisely. It’s difficult to fathom the council taking on even one project from its grand wish list without knowing who will manage it or how it will pay to operate it. And it’s irresponsible to even consider new projects when existing parks aren’t properly funded. The county should explore every avenue to use this money to help the Recreation Commission operate its improved facilities.

The bottom line: While the council obviously has put a lot of effort into dreaming, it has put too little thought into what constitutes good stewardship over hospitality taxes.

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