South Carolina

Citizen’s panel to grapple with cuts in meal tax money for cultural, arts groups

A photo opportunity with gondoliers awaited visitors to the 2014 Italian Festival in Columbia. Meal tax revenues help pay for promoting events that feature various cultures and parts of the world.
A photo opportunity with gondoliers awaited visitors to the 2014 Italian Festival in Columbia. Meal tax revenues help pay for promoting events that feature various cultures and parts of the world. FILE PHOTOGRAPH

The citizen’s committee that usually doles out about one-third of Columbia’s annual revenue from meal taxes will have a much tougher time deciding Friday which organizations and events will get funding from a smaller pot of money.

The 11-member panel has $5.4 million in requests and has $1.8 million to spread around in fiscal 2016-2017. That’s because City Council on Tuesday took $386,500 and spent it and committed the city to $1.25 million for several years to expand two downtown museums.

That action squeezed the committee’s share from $2.26 million to $1.8 million for cultural and arts organizations, which intensifies competition for the already coveted money.

The panel has an all-day meeting set for Friday to scrutinize 78 applications and make its recommendations to council. Council almost always accepts the committee’s decisions.

“The mayor told all of the agencies last year that they would not be cut because of Bull Street, that they would be kept whole,” John Whitehead, the chairman of the citizen’s panel, said Wednesday. “We’re going to have to re-evaluate what they meant by whole,” Whitehead said of the commitment by Benjamin and later by council.

Whitehead is referring to City Hall’s decision to float $29 million in bonds to pay for the city-owned stadium. The bonds will be repaid using meal-tax revenue for 30 years.

Council’s reduction of the money to the committee comes as 10 new applicants have requested $650,000 just for their events, said Libby Gober, an aide to the panel. That is on top of $4.7 million sought by organizations that count on the money year in and year out.

Whitehead said panel members likely will not enforce across the board cuts. That would mean smaller organizations or events “would get almost nothing,” he said. Instead the committee will decide on how it will approach the dilemma and will examine each application more closely than usual.

Whitehead leads the Columbia Music Festival Association, a group that’s also the fiscal agent for two dozen smaller arts groups. He said he hopes council will reconsider.

He also plans to ask Mayor Steve Benjamin if any of the $386,500 can be restored should meal taxes, known legally as hospitality taxes, generate more than the projected $10.8 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

Rather than cut the committee’s allotment, Whitehead asked council on Tuesday to increase the panel’s share annually by the same percentage that tax collections rise, which they have done since the end of the Great Recession.

Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.

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