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Camden, MASC: leave local issues to local government

Posted: February 12, 2015 4:59 p.m.
Updated: February 13, 2015 1:00 a.m.

Camden  City Council made a direct statement to the S.C. State House on Tuesday: Leave local government issues to local government.

Council unanimously passed a resolution adopting the Municipal Association of South Carolina’s (MASC) 2015 Advocacy Initiatives to direct more local decision making to locally elected officials. In doing so, council effectively stands with all 270 cities and towns in South Carolina.

While such a resolution may sound obvious, the MASC’s stance and actions are very important, even vital, to the well-being of cities and towns across the state, City Manager Mel Pearson told council. Areas of concern the MASC addresses through the resolution include clearing blight, open government issues, fixing roads, and funding services.

The last item -- funding services -- sparked some spirited commentary among council members.

An issue recently discussed at a MASC meeting, but not mentioned in the resolution are bills being introduced in the General Assembly aiming to streamline business license procedures across the state, Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford said. One bill proposes to change how business license fees are calculated and cap the license fee at $100. Proponents claim the calculation of business license fees based on projected gross revenue is unfair.

Depending on which version one looks at, the bills would severely cut, even eliminate, business license fees.

“I notice that this isn’t in the resolution, but it needs to be discussed,” Drakeford said. “We need to let people know about this.”

Pearson agreed, noting some $1.6 million -- around 18 percent -- of the city of Camden’s general fund comes from fees charged for business licenses, insurance company fees and telecommunications fees.

“This could be about a $600,000 impact on the city,” Pearson said. “This could severely restrict the level of services we provide.”

In fact, he said, $600,000 translates to some 25 positions in the city -- firefighters, police officers, utility workers, administrative staff.

If this were to happen, the only option the city would have to maintain the level of services it currently provides, would be tax hikes, ultimately as much as 30 mills.

“They say it’s for economic development,” Pearson said. “I think some of these legislators are out of touch with reality. If their idea is only to prompt economic development, I think that’s a weak argument.”

“The problem there, too, is that people expect us to continue to provide these services,” Drakeford added, “but when their taxes go up, they won’t be looking at Columbia, they’ll be looking at us.”

Camden is not the only city facing this issue, either, Mayor Tony Scully noted.

“These revenues make up 18 percent of our budget -- but for some municipalities it’s as high as 40 percent,” Scully said. “So this could have a very serious and negative impact on the quality of life for everyone in South Carolina.”

Councilman Jeffrey Graham questioned the rationale behind the bill, despite its alleged aim to spark economic development. He noted many businesses already relocate to South Carolina every day.

“Who is going to want to do business here if they can’t get the services they need,” he said. “Our staff is great --- they bring quality to everything we do -- but when you’re talking about cutting 18-25 people from the budget, we won’t be able to do what we do now. I think it’s important that we stand firm with our fellow cities and counties on this.”

Patricia Richardson, owner of Camden Antique Market and president of the Camden Business Alliance, said the organization has not discussed the situation yet, therefore she could not give a statement on the guild’s behalf. However, as a business owner, she said she believes -- at least in Camden -- the present structure is reasonable.

“As a business owner, I don’t see how the city can keep its commitments to the general population without these fees,” Richardson said. “I complain, but I understand the city needs money to do these things. Perhaps the situation is different in other places, but at least here, personally I feel it’s a very equitable rate.”

Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Liz Horton said the chamber has not yet discussed the issue and has no position at this time. She did say any such discussion would likely be couched in terms of weighing benefit versus harm of any such bill to business owners.

State Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk said she has not had a chance to study the bills yet, but her inclination is to resolve any such issue at the local level.

“The business license fee has been an important and long time revenue source for municipalities and counties,” she said. “If it needs to be addressed in any way it should be done at city hall, not the State House.”

In other business, council passed:

• a proclamation designating February as Black History Month;

• first reading of an ordinance repealing and readopting a new zoning ordinance; and

• a resolution supporting Amtrak as a partner of the community.


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