[This column first appeared in the Post&Courier and is republished here with the kind permission of the author.]
There is $6.3 million for the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, $2.6 million for the Gaillard Center, $1 million for the RiverDogs ballpark, $2 million for the swimming pool of her dreams. And on and on.
Dig deep into the city’s 2019 budget, and it becomes very clear very fast there is money to cope with Charleston’s existential ﬂooding crisis if only we are willing to look. Here is where I am supposed to say there are hard choices to be made. The truth is some of these choices aren’t hard at all.
Next year, the city is expected to take in almost $30 million in taxes from the army of tourists who visit every year and all of us who go out to eat or have a beer. Only 10 percent of that — $3.1 million to rebuild the crumbling Low Battery — will go to ﬂood relief. That’s unacceptable if ﬂooding is, in fact, the No. 1 issue facing the city, and it is.
City Council just voted to raise property taxes and for the second time in two years increased the stormwater fee to pay for drainage projects. But three ﬂoods later, the council continues with business as usual, doling out millions in tourism taxes like so much free money to old favorites and new pet projects alike. My nomination for Pork of the Year: The $2 million down payment deftly budgeted, without public comment and without a separate council vote, for former city councilwoman/swimmer Kathleen Wilson’s dream of a $50 million aquatic and wellness center in West Ashley. If a 15-minute slideshow like the one Wilson & Co. wowed council with in November passes for due diligence, sign me up for my 15 minutes and my millions.
I’m just warming up. No one loves baseball more than me, and a ticket to The Joe, the gorgeous ballpark Joe Riley built, is one of the best deals in town. That is because the ballpark is a money pit that sucked up
$1.5 million in tourism taxes last year, or a taxpayer subsidy of $5 for every ticket sold. Raise ticket prices and cut the subsidy.
This can’t continue. In a city of 135,000, we aren’t going to solve our $2 billion ﬂooding crisis raising property taxes and the stormwater fee. You have to go to where the money is, the 7 million gold-card toting tourists who come to worship Charleston every year. Mayor John Tecklenburg’s plan to get more ﬂexibility in using the accommodation and hospitality taxes to pay for drainage projects is a place to start. Those taxes are now restricted to tourism uses, broadly deﬁned.
The bill failed in the Legislature this year, but it’s worth pushing again. If it passes, nobody is going to want to take a cut. But if residents and businesses are being asked to pay higher taxes, other institutions, whether the Visitors Bureau, the Gaillard and the Gibbes, or the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, can too. We can do it with a scalpel, we can do it with a hammer. But we must do it. We have to do more than move around money — we need new money. Tecklenburg has been mayor for three years, and the city has yet to apply to the State Infrastructure Bank for money for ﬂooding, it has yet to seek some of the $2 billion raised by the countywide half-cent sales tax. It has yet to propose new dedicated taxes on the hotels or cruise ships, it has yet to raise new federal money. This, too, must change. A $3 million study of the peninsula by the Army Corps of Engineers may help unlock federal funding. Let’s hope so. To date, the federal government has kicked in only about 10 percent of what has been spent on drainage projects in 30 years. Last week, City Council learned the $154 million Crosstown drainage project is four years behind schedule and $30 million over budget. It’s now clear why Laura Cabiness, the city’s top engineer who oversaw drainage and ﬂood prevention for two decades, retired in October. The lesson: Bosses don’t like ugly surprises. It will surely not be the last surprise. Saving Charleston will be costly, and we have less time than we thought. The ﬂooding that comes more often, and more unexpectedly, is telling us this. We mostly know how to ﬁx it. If we fail, it will because we lacked the money — and the will — to save ourselves.
Steve Bailey writes for the Commentary page. He can be reached at email@example.com.