Mt. P. willing to step up to plate for recreation Survey shows most taxpayers would pay higher taxes, fees

The Town of Mount Pleasant is evaluating a survey on operating and funding its recreation department which includes athletic facilities and youth sports, like this game for 9- and 10-year-olds at Joe Gawrych Baseball Complex on Monday night.

MOUNT PLEASANT - This is a community of highly active recreation users willing to pay higher taxes and fees, especially for athletic facilities and youth sports - and they want offerings bolstered rather than cut, a new report shows.

As town council members increase taxes and fees to pay for multimillion dollar road and drainage projects, some also want to consider how much the town spends on recreation services.

The council hired two Clemson University researchers to look at whether the town's recreation department, considered one of the best, is generating enough revenue and operating as efficiently as possible. The results released Monday came as council members began examining their proposed 2014-15 budget.

About 91 percent of the 140 people surveyed for the report said they are willing to pay higher taxes and fees to preserve recreation.

"Some people said this is why they moved here," said report author Bob Brookover, director of the Clemson International Institute for Tourism Research and Development. "Public spending on recreation is an investment, not a loss. Try not having it and see what the city looks like."

The audience on hand for the presentation applauded when it was over.

"It makes me feel good that the general public wants us to move forward," Councilman Gary Santos said.

The town spends about $7 million on recreation programs and receives about $2.2 million back in fees. That has raised the question: Should users pay more, or should the recreation department operate like police, fire and others heavily paid for with tax dollars?

To help answer, the Clemson researchers conducted nine large focus groups and interviews with residents, stakeholders, recreation staff and town council members. A public input session last month drew about 200 residents to fill out surveys about how much they use the rec and their opinions about how to finance it.

More than half of respondents said they favor increasing property taxes to generate more recreation dollars. Nearly 39 percent favored raising fees.

Only 3 percent favored eliminating facilities, and 6 percent favored eliminating programs or services to cut costs.

"This is a group very much in favor of investing," said Bob Barcelona, the other report author and a Clemson professor of parks, recreation and tourism management.

However, residents worried about raising fees and other charges to the point some residents couldn't afford to take part.

"They didn't want people to get priced out," Brookover said.

Resident Jack Corley said he agrees and noted that many seniors in particular are on fixed incomes.

"They are the least able to afford an increase in fees and admissions and per-person expenses," Corley said.

Residents said they want recreation needs included in talks about raising taxes for infrastructure. The consultants noted that if town council increased property taxes to add $15 to the annual bill for a $373,000 home, it would generate about $486,000 a year.

However, as of now, a tax increase for recreation is not in the proposed 2014-2015 budget.

"You have a lack of tax revenue issue that has been building for 23 years," the report says. That's how long it had been until last month when town council members approved a property tax increase for the upcoming budget year.

Residents surveyed said they would be willing to pay on average $414 a year per person to support recreation. Mount Pleasant's current nearly $67 per capita tax spending on recreation is lower than the average among comparable municipalities even though the town is much more affluent, the report says.

While the town's population and income levels have risen, its rec investments "are not as impressive," the report adds.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.