Kevin Fisher in 2018

Kevin Fisher

As candidates for Columbia City Council proceed from forum to forum and door to door to tell us of their plans to improve the city and address its problems, the common denominator is plenty of proposals but no way to fund them.

Whatever you may want as a voter in terms of public safety and public housing, the arts and recreation, jobs and economic development or anything else, it’s going to cost money. But Columbia has none to spare, and little to invest in those things. Why?  

A big reason is that some 65 percent of property in Columbia is tax-exempt. That means two things: The city is always strapped for operating revenue; and you and I have to make up the difference for the tax deadbeats.

Well bite my tongue, I just called the University of South Carolina, Prisma Health and a whole host of churches and nonprofit organizations tax deadbeats!

And I’d say it again. Facts are facts, and while those may be uncomfortable, they are also undeniable. We must face the situation if we are going to change it. Like they did in Greenwood.

With one-third of their property being tax exempt and their government largely funded by property taxes, Greenwood acted. From The Post and Courier, May 28, 2018:

“Greenwood moved to address the issue in 2011, entering into an agreement with the area’s three largest hospitals for payments in lieu of property taxes, like a yearly rent. By the end of 2016, the payments totaled $1 million.”

And get this — the hospitals that serve Greenwood residents, along with other area nonprofits, were receptive and cooperative on the issue. From The Post and Courier story:

“‘As we have had these conversations through the years with our larger nonprofits, they have all agreed that working together is in the best interest of all citizens of Greenwood,” City Manager Charlie Barrineau said.’”

But alas that spirit of working together — not to mention paying your fair share — has been lacking with Columbia-area hospitals, nonprofits and USC.  

That is galling for the residential and business property owners who have to make up the difference, particularly so when you consider this: South Carolina is one of 17 states that allows municipalities to set tax exemptions within their boundaries.

In other words, there is nothing to prevent Columbia City Council from acting on this matter, something it should have done a long time ago.

And it would be impactful if they did. As The Post and Courier reported:

“Exemptions for the thousands of acres of land owned by the University of South Carolina, Palmetto Health [now Prisma Health], state government and other nonprofits likely totals in the tens of millions in lost revenues for Columbia’s $142 million budget.”

That’s tens of millions every year, folks.

The good news is, Columbia City Council may actually be about to do something. Not enough, but something.

Council recently passed first reading of an ordinance that would, as reported by The State, “charge business license fees to hospitals, other nonprofits and their subsidiaries who offer services that compete with for-profit businesses.”

The story added, “Businesses that have a [non-profit] 501(c) tax status from the IRS — but otherwise operate as a profitable company — would begin paying business license fees like the rest of the city’s businesses. ... Charities and places of worship would remain exempt.”

As the sheriff famously said in Blazing Saddles, “Now who can argue with that?” Apparently some entities that enjoy the tax exemption, as comments in the story from the South Carolina Hospital Association and a no-comment from USC made clear.

In spite of the resistance from the deadbeat power players, Council passed the measure at first reading on a 6-1 vote. The only dissenter? Mayor Steve Benjamin. A poor decision, but he’s not up for election this year.

Citizens should focus their attention on the three Council members who are up for election, along with their challengers. Let them know your vote could be determined by this fundamental issue of tax fairness and adequate city funding.

Second reading (the one that counts) should be coming up soon on the measure, which is expected to raise $2 million to $4 million annually. For the affected hospitals and nonprofits, it’s the least they can do.

So let’s make them do it.  

Fisher is president of Fisher Communications, a Columbia advertising and public relations firm. He is active in local issues involving the arts, conservation, business and politics. Let us know what you think: Email editor@free-times.com.

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