Editorial | Myrtle Beach library fee would add up to double taxation

Myrtle Beach City Council members appeared somewhat surprised at the possibility of requiring a $125 annual subscription fee to use the Chapin Memorial Library and since hearing the proposal they have said they’ll consider other revenue options to avoid the library fee.

Good idea.

The library fee was in a proposed $159.8 million operating budget discussed at the city’s annual budget retreat. The proposal presented by budget director Michael Shelton also included increases in solid waste, water and sewer rates -- but not an increase in the city’s property tax.

Any tax increase -- no matter the potential need or merit -- is avoided by politicians at all levels of government because many elected officials have bought into “no tax increase pledges’’ of one sort or another. No doubt most taxpayers like to hear “no tax increases,’’ but the fact is such pledges do not necessarily make for better governance.

Understand that the name on a specific revenue doesn’t really make any difference -- call it a tax, a toll, a fee or a rate. If the required payment is set by a government -- federal, state, county, municipal -- a fee is the same as a tax. A highway toll is a tax by another name.

A library fee would be especially galling because real estate and personal property taxes already support the Chapin Memorial Library; so an added $125 annual fee would be double taxation -- unless the city budget makers planned to reduce the property tax by an amount equal to the estimated revenue from a library subscription fee.

Politicians at all levels of governance want to take credit for reducing or at least not increasing taxes. Myrtle Beach and other local politicians love to claim they have reduced property taxes. And they have -- but let us not forget that a higher sales tax is in place to replace the revenue. Sales taxes are regressive. So all retail consumers in Myrtle Beach, residents and visitors, pay for the tax break for city property owners. The greater the value of the property, the bigger the tax break.

User fees, such as road tolls, put more payment responsibility on users of the specific service. That works for highways, and entrance fees into parks. A user fee won’t work for the nation’s defense, for example, or for public education or law enforcement or other public safety services provided by all levels of government.

And a user fee for public libraries won’t work either. A fee that covered all the costs would be prohibitive for many library users. Public libraries provide enrichment and entertainment for all members of society through books and other reading material, loaned works of art, films, music, and Internet access. Many library users, especially at Chapin, use the Internet to seek jobs and apply for benefits.

Chapin Memorial Library is the only municipal library in South Carolina. Other area libraries are in the Horry County system. The Myrtle Beach library is named for the late Simeon B. Chapin and has been supported by the Chapin Foundation set up in the 1940s, before the city library was built. From 1994 through 2009, the library received a total of $2.25 million from the foundation, for general collection books and special projects.

The city council is looking at reducing funding to a variety of nonprofits that provide vital services to many people. City manager Tom Leath told council members, “It’s not your place to collect taxes and turn around and give it to charity.’’

He has a point. But the city funds to New Directions ($121,500) is a good deal for taxpayers, less expensive than if the city had to directly provide services to the homeless. That is one example of a dozen city-supported nonprofits.

It also is not the council’s place to add an annual library users fee to the city’s public library. Such a fee is anathema to the concept of public libraries and the council should keep this bad idea entirely off the table.