Critics have raised legitimate concerns about the cost, complexity and confusion encountered when trying to do business in Columbia and Richland County.
According to a story by The State’s Adam Beam, some argue that property tax rates, business license fees, sales taxes and costly delays in the permitting process place Columbia and Richland County among the most expensive places in the state to do business. They say prized industries such as Boeing and Amazon.com have chosen Charleston, Lexington County and other communities because fees and taxes levied in those areas are lower than in Columbia or Richland.
Not all of the concerns raised are easily addressed or, for that matter, the fault of these two local governments. But there are some glaring problems Columbia and Richland long have had the power to address and have simply chosen not to. Chief among them is the longstanding complaint from developers and others about having to wade through delays and confusing red tape and make multiple trips between city and county offices to get building permits and business licenses and to pay for water and sewer taps and other fees. A joint department staffed by highly competent, efficient workers dealing with all such issues would resolve that.
Columbia and Richland have talked for years about merging zoning and planning departments and streamlining the process for acquiring approvals and permits. But they’ve failed even the minimal test of housing their departments under the same roof. Instead, each opened its own -- one-stop shop -- supposedly to make it easier for businesses and citizens to conduct their affairs. Not only does that setup still require at least two stops but, judging from complaints, it isn’t working.
Better collaboration on zoning and planning is just a start. For example, Richland County has approved hiring an economic development director; that should be a joint endeavor with the city, most of which is within Richland County.
As Greater Columbia Chamber of Commerce president Ike McLeese and others rightly noted, it’s imperative that Columbia and Richland get the things they can control right to offset things they can’t control.
While city and county officials set property tax rates, they have some special constraints. One thing that drives up Richland County’s taxes is school construction. Since1996, voters in county school districts have approved a total of $1.1 billion in bonds for construction projects, including a state-record $381 million bond issue for Richland District 1. As a capital city, Columbia has large amounts of property downtown that is untaxed because it belongs to the state or to churches and nonprofits; private property owners pay a higher tax rate to take up the slack.
Quite frankly, Columbia’s status as a viable capital city aids its neighbors’ growth. Yes, people are drawn to Lexington and the suburbs of Richland County by the quality schools, but they also note the close proximity to downtown Columbia.
Columbia is the hub of the Midlands; the suburbs depend on the health of the capital city, and vice versa. While it’s important for each jurisdiction to lure new businesses, residents and visitors, ultimately it doesn’t matter where new business and industry locate within the footprint of the real economic city called Columbia, which includes the whole of Lexington and Richland counties.
That said, it’s important for Columbia and Richland County leaders, who acknowledge that there are problems that must be addressed, to get to work. Their first order of business should be to launch a combined effort to fix anything they fully control, beginning with zoning, planning and permitting issues. They will be far more competitive united rather than divided.