Beach Tax? Only in Emergency

February 23, 2013 

Beach renourishment will always be a concern for our area, as it will for every developed coastal community. Especially if the recommendations of the recently completed report of the state’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Shoreline Management are adopted, abandoning the state’s 20-year policy of beach retreat, continued renourishment will be a given.

But do we need a higher tax to pay for it? No. Not now. Hopefully not later.

That said, the move by Horry County Council to support the possibility of a higher accommodations tax is not necessarily a bad idea.

Some background may be in order: A bill pending at the Statehouse in Columbia would allow coastal communities to raise the accommodations tax by 1 percent in order to pay for renourishment activities. Though much of Horry County’s delegation has signed on to the legislation, it was originally sponsored by Mike Sottile of Isle of Palms and was designed to benefit coastal communities near Charleston, such as Sullivans Island and Isle of Palms. Beaches in that area are suffering much higher erosion rates than Horry County and struggling to find a way to pay for needed renourishment projects.

Rep. Nelson Hardwick of Surfside Beach said this week that the proposal is from folks “with a bigger problem than Horry County.”

Speaking of the tax increase at a Feb. 15 county meeting, councilmen Marion Foxworth and Gary Loftus said in unison: “We don’t need it.”

Let’s hope it stays that way. Increasing the cost of hotel rooms and rentals in an area that relies on tourism for the vast majority of its revenue is not a solution any local governments should undertake lightly. Nevertheless, Horry County Council was thinking ahead this week when it urged lawmakers to expand the legislation to also make the increase available to counties, instead of just towns and cities.

Why? Because nobody is sure what will happen with the federal budget. Horry County has smartly been putting money aside for years to pay for future renourishment projects, but much of the cost is still borne by the federal government, with the county paying a smaller share. Given the state of the federal government, however, with drastic cuts seemingly inevitable and increasing calls to cut back on spending, money from Washington isn’t a given. County leaders want a Plan B in their pocket in case an emergency occurs or the feds close the checkbook.

Emergency and unexpected are the key. Unforeseen or urgent necessity is the only reason this increase should ever go into effect locally.

“This is not something that I think we need to pass on the people and the tourists on the Grand Strand,” Councilman Harold Worley said at the same Feb. 15 meeting. “It puts us in a bad position to compete, especially with the N.C. beaches that are hurting the Grand Strand.”

Worley is right. Some have floated the idea – how seriously is unclear – that an increase would allow cities to move the money previously set aside for renourishment to other places, including more advertising of the region. It’s perhaps one reason that Worley joked that rather than the Beach Preservation Act, “it should be the Chamber Preservation Act.” We’re not convinced raising taxes simply to accomplish such a shuffling of money is necessary or wise.

Planning ahead for a rainy day, however, is never a bad idea. That’s why we cautiously support efforts to approve the option for counties and cities to raise this tax by themselves, with the recognition that our own local governments don’t need that increase now and hopefully never will. In addition, we have no doubt that any attempt to exercise that option outside of dire need will be looked upon severely by residents and tourists who already have no compunctions about complaining about local tax rates.

If the beaches at Isle of Palms are in such a desperate state that the city needs to raise its accommodations tax now, that’s fine. Our beaches aren’t.

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