Berkeley County Council on Monday gave away more than $500,000 in tax money to groups promoting bass tournaments, a Catfish Festival and a TV fishing show – and took steps toward repealing the ordinance that created the 2 percent accommodations tax more than 20 years ago.
It also voted, with a caveat, to increase from $100,000 to $187,500 the allotment to the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, which in the past has received nearly all of the money in the fund.
The Chamber is under federal investigation over questions about how it has spent about $500,000 generated by the tax in the past, county officials have said. The Federal Bureau of Investigation does not confirm or deny investigations.
Council voted Monday, May 8th to hold the Chamber’s portion of the fund until it has been cleared in the investigation or until Councilman Kevin Cox has reviewed the Chamber’s records, which he said the organization has refused to provide him.
In 2016, former county Supervisor Jim Rozier was named head of the county’s Accommodations Tax Committee and the committee overhauled the process it uses to divvy out the industry’s self-imposed tax on lodging, which is meant to be used to support tourism and tourism-related services.
But that process was delayed in December after legal questions and questions with the Chamber arose.
On Monday, council members again discussed the fund, with several questioning whether the Chamber brings in tourists to fill the county’s hotels.
“I don’t feel comfortable by going in and taking this tax that was collected by hotel people and diluting it down across the county,” said Land Use and Economic Development Committee Chairman Jack Schurlknight, adding that he supports the groups who applied for the grants but feels they shouldn’t be funded by the accommodations tax.
“The bottom line on this whole issue with these groups that are wanting the funding, are they going to create the same amount of overnight stays that the hotels’ owners are seeing now?” he said.
But Councilman Ken Gunn questioned the effectiveness of the Chamber, saying that Googling “Berkeley County” most often brings up the identically named county in West Virginia.
“It just seems like a no-brainer to me,” he said. “We need a marketing firm with the way we’re growing and stuff.”
During Monday’s discussion, three of eight councilmen declared that they were tired of discussing the topic and wished it would just go away.
“We don’t advertise for construction companies. We don’t advertise for restaurants,” said Cox. “We are not an advertising agency. County council needs to get out of the business of advertising for specific industries. … I have spent more time on this issue in the last month than I have for any issue in this county.”
“Maybe eliminate the tax and the headache’s gone,” Councilman Josh Whitley added.
First reading was approved by the committee. It will take three readings for the tax to be repealed, which Schurlknight said gives council time to find an alternative.
Among the groups that were awarded a portion of the money are: July 4th festivals in Alvin and Moncks Corner ($5,000 each), 41 Community Labor Day Festival ($5,000), St. Stephen Catfish Festival ($5,000), Berkeley and Stratford high school bass clubs ($10,000 each), Jamestown Hell Hole Swamp Festival ($5,000), Daniel Island Performing Arts Center ($25,000) and Berkeley County Museum ($25,950).
In addition, council approved $22,500 for the county’s Blueways Paddling Trails; $30,000 toward a TV fishing show; and $35,000 for the S.C. Battleground Preservation Trust to create a smart phone app that is a driving tour of 46 Revolutionary War battle sites in the county, along with a print guide and computer program.
A separate vote to award $90,000 to Fort Fairlawn was taken separately because Rozier is president of the board of the Lord Berkeley Conservation Trust, which owns Fort Fairlawn.