SOME ON Richland County Council are poised to drop the pretense that hospitality tax revenue is anything but a slush fund and begin openly spending the money to spread pork projects around the county.
The honesty may be refreshing, but the council should nix this poorly considered proposal, which almost certainly would lead to wasteful and unlawful spending. It would encourage the creation of dubious projects just for the sake of spending the money, whether they lure tourists or not.
We understand the desire to spend more of the $5.4 million collected annually in unincorporated areas, but creating the ultimate pork-barrel system, which would allow council members to dole out goodies in their districts, isn’t the answer. Spreading the money generated by the 2 percent tax on prepared foods around the county in the name of perceived fairness isn’t a prudent or effective strategy for attracting people from outside the region and state who will spend money and boost the local economy.
County Council Chairman Kelvin Washington proposes building $44 million in new, mostly unspecified projects outside Columbia’s limits. But while state law requires the money to be used to attract tourists, local governments have tended to use it to build and expand parks and other projects that are typically funded by general tax dollars and don’t boost tourism.
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Not only are some County Council members concerned that organizations in the city receive too much of Richland’s hospitality taxes, but they also complain that City Council refuses to consider funding projects in unincorporated areas.
There’s nothing wrong with the county distributing more of the money in areas outside the city, as long as it goes to legitimate tourist draws. But the council must not dream up pie-in-the-sky projects or fund less-qualified organizations in the county simply to avoid giving to groups in the city.
While it’s true that Columbia often hasn’t dealt fairly with Richland County — and that must change — the fact is that Columbia and Richland County are intertwined and share a common destiny; they should develop a joint strategy of how best to allocate hospitality taxes so as to avoid overlapping and to make sure the groups that do the best job of drawing visitors, helping grow the economy and improving residents’ quality of life get funded, no matter where they’re located.
And, let’s face it: Most organizations and attractions that consistently draw visitors to hotels, restaurants and shops in Columbia and the rest of Richland County are located inside the city limits. That’s the nature of a center city.
Certainly, if there are deserving groups or projects in unincorporated areas — or even if legitimate opportunities come along — then County Council should fund them.
But the county must not manufacture projects just so it will have something to spend money on. It’s tried that twice with regional projects — a state farmers market in southeast Columbia and a soccer complex in Northeast Richland — that failed. And a third, smaller plan, to establish a 44-acre park to draw tourists to Lower Richland, is likely to flop as well.
We urged Columbia and Richland not to approve this tax because it would bring great temptation to use the funds for reasons other than tourism. Neither is likely to repeal the tax, but both should lobby the Legislature to allow the money to be used to fund real service and operational needs.
In the meantime, Columbia and Richland should put the money to its best use in an effort to attract visitors and spur commerce across the whole county. If that means groups in the city get more, then so be it.