Slightly smaller Charleston tax hike passes
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley got most of what he wanted for his emergency public safety tax hike, but had to give up adding eight new police officers for the downtown bar and entertainment district to get it.
And, instead of property taxes going up by $40 annually on a house valued at $250,000, they will go up $35.
In one of the closer-fought battles recently on council, Riley pulled out heavy lobbying Tuesday to prevent his package of 19 new police officers for elementary school patrols — plus two new fire stations — from being deferred. The measure passed either 7-6 or 8-5, depending on whom you ask. But in either case it includes Riley’s vote.
He started by mentioning the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings as examples where gun violence changed the country.
Sandy Hook “exploded a myth of serenity and peace” of children’s safety in schools, he said.
After the vote went in his favor, Riley said a majority of council made the tough call by passing the ordinance on first reading. “It was the right decision, to make a community safer,” he said.
Final consideration of the emergency measure will come in two weeks. If approved, taxes will suddenly go up for the year by $3.48 million.
Councilman Gary White spoke for the minority when said he was not against bringing added layers of protection to cover schools. Instead, he said the issue was more one of finding better alternatives without resorting to a tax increase. “It’s how we fund them,” he said.
Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson questioned whether the vote effectively locks the city into providing patrol officers free of charge in other situations, or when other schools go online. Some in the group wanted the effort deferred for more study.
Supporting Riley were council members James Lewis, Robert Mitchell, William Dudley Gregorie, Keith Waring, Dean Riegel and Bill Moody.
It was Moody who suggested dropping the eight entertainment-district officers from the package. They would have been added to the King Street and Market area. He said the rest of the proposal made sense, including Police Chief Greg Mullen’s call for “cluster” patrolling of the schools.
As envisioned, teams of city police officers would be assigned to patrol 35 elementary schools that would be divided into eight geographic zones, or “clusters.” Every elementary school in the city would be included, public and private.
Mullen said the plan will be more effective than having a single person assigned to one school at a time. He hopes to have the new officers trained and ready to go by the August start of the new school year.
Meanwhile, the two new fire stations being sought, plus trucks and staff, would be for the Bees Ferry Road area in West Ashley, and in Cainhoy — areas Fire Chief Karen Brack said are under-served.
Tuesday’s vote came as several council members said they received dozens of emails against the tax hike, while more than a dozen people, many from education backgrounds, attended the meeting in person and spoke in support.
Among them was Stan Halstead, president of the South Carolina PTA’s District 9 covering Charleston County. He suggested the parents who lost their children in the mass Connecticut shootings would have gladly paid $1,000 extra if it meant their kids would have come home safe.Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551.