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TIF district ordinance passes, 4-1

Posted: October 13, 2011 6:01 p.m.
Updated: October 14, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Camden City Council’s creation of a nearly 127-acre tax increment financing, or TIF, district is another step closer to reality following a 4-1 vote Tuesday night. The vote came after a public hearing on the proposed ordinance that would establish both a redevelopment plan for the district and its proposed borders.

Councilman Willard Polk said while he supports the creation of the district, he could not vote in favor of the ordinance Tuesday night because he felt not enough time had been spent studying the proposal.

“I certainly see the merit of the plan,” Polk said. “This is something the city needs; it has been needed for a long time. However ... I have not been satisfied, in my own mind, about the ultimate process.”

Polk motioned for the ordinance to be tabled, but received no second.

During the public hearing, Polk asked questions of both City Manager Kevin Bronson and Pope Zeigler attorney Lawrence Flynn, including what would happen if the city could not pay any TIF bonds it uses to pay for redevlopment projects.

Flynn said even if the city went ahead with a large bond, it would still be pledging to pay that bond with TIF revenue.

“The (bank that) purchases the bond -- say $1 million -- and we overestimate, you could pledge your water and sewer system. I’m not saying you need to do that, but it’s something you could do,” Flynn said. “Otherwise, the only recourse for that bond holder is to wait for that (TIF) money to be collected. They couldn’t go after the city’s taxes or general fund reserves -- it can only be paid back from TIF revenues.”

Furthermore, Flynn said, the point of a TIF district is to spur private investment into the redevelopment area. As property values naturally increase, he said, the amount of tax revenue above a current assessment “freeze” point would make it easier to bay back debt connected to the improvements.

“The risk to the city is the risk to the bond rating,” Flynn said, “but the bank’s not going to buy a bond if it doesn’t think there is sufficient backing.”

Bronson took up most of the public hearing going through a slide show presentation based on the redevelopment plan already available on the city’s website.

Bronson said the areas within the proposed district have declined over time as other areas have improved. He also read out the plan’s entire list of redevelopment objectives.

One of them is to develop a greenway along the “West DeKalb Street Corridor.” Bronson said the concept goes “hand-in-hand” with a proposed Broad Street “road diet.” He said the improvements would include a landscape median along West DeKalb Street, but not for the entire length.

“It would be four or five specific areas, about 30 to 40 feet in length,” Bronson said, plus a “gateway feature” to greet travelers coming in to Camden from Lugoff.

No one signed up to speak during the public hearing, however two citizens did speak after Mayor Jeffrey Graham called for anyone wishing to speak to come forward.

Bob Williams, who owns property in the proposed district, expressed concern about risks involved with TIF districts. He said it was possible for properties immediately outside the district to rise in value to the point where residents could be displaced because they could no longer afford to make tax payments.

Helen Crolley, who lives outside the city of Camden, said she was concerned that -- due to the Columbus Day holiday -- not enough people learned of the public hearing in time to attend.

Answering other questions, Flynn said TIF districts were a “very popular vehicle” for municipalities in the 1980s and 1990s, but that changes in the statute changed the way cities use it today. He admitted such districts do not necessarily generate as much revenue as some government leaders would prefer.

“But it has been very successful … to fund major projects,” Flynn said, citing the Newberry Opera House, Myrtle Beach’s Broadway on the Beach and Columbia’s Vista as examples.

Bronson said the redevelopment plan is a strategy for how to address infrastructure issues and that the proposed sports complex would likely spur development of the remaining portion of the Mather property.

He also said the former Continuous Learning Center has been identified as a prime site for commercial redevelopment. Graham expressed hope that the TIF district’s creation would spur someone to purchase the former Bi-Lo shopping center and petition for annexation, providing the city with additional tax revenue.

Tuesday night’s vote was someone unusual in that council has made an effort in recent years not to vote on first reading of ordinances at the same meeting as a public hearing on the issue. Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford spearheaded that effort several years ago, but said Tuesday she was comfortable with the process this time.

Councilman Walter Long said after hearing both the presentation and the public comments, the plan appeared practical to him.

“It’s not a new tax. As has been pointed out, people who own property in the district will only pay higher taxes if their property value goes up,” Long said. “How many people say they want windows on houses boarded up in their neighborhood just so they can pay less taxes. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Mayor Graham said he has tried to think about how Camden’s west side looks to someone coming in to the city from Lugoff.

“There are things in the city that I’m proud of and things that I’m not,” Graham said. “This corridor has to be part of our work -- we can’t afford to pass it over. It’s another area we have to spend time in. There are businesses that need our help.”

Also Tuesday, council created a new Hospitality Tax (HTAX) Committee.

Graham said he felt the committee should be structured similarly to council’s Accomodations Tax (ATAX) Committee in that it would make recommendations on what amount of HTAX funds should be disbursed to recipients. Graham said there would be two primary differences between the two committees.

On one hand, there is no statutory requirement in South Carolina to create a HTAX Committee. Such regulations do exist for ATAX committees. On the other hand, Graham indicated council will likely only allow the HTAX Committee to make disbursement recommendations on a portion of HTAX receipts. The city’s ATAX Committee is charged with making recommendations on all city ATAX proceeds.

“I don’t really have a problem with that,” Partin said. “I want input on how the (hospitality) tax should be used, but I’m a little concerned that this is being put together -- how did somebody put it? -- willy-nilly in that there’s no real structure to it.”

Earlier, Graham suggested that council not concern itself just yet with exactly how much of the HTAX funds the committee would get to work with. He said he wanted to discuss that at council’s annual strategic planning session in January.

Polk agreed the committee needed to be created but expressed concern that those entities already receiving HTAX grants would be short-changed in the future.

“We have already appropriated HTAX money for several purposes. I’m concerned that this would have a negative impact on those already receiving those funds,” Polk said.

Graham reiterated that he wanted that to be discussed at the strategic planning session.

“I think we need the committee to exist before we deal with that amount,” Graham said.

The mayor also provided the names of six people to fill all but one of the seats of what he suggested be a seven-member committee: Vip Patel, Jonathan Bazinet, Chip Galloway, Pam Spivey, Tripp Guinn and Jasper Boswell. Polk nominated Ben Schreiner.

Partin, however, continued to express dissatisfaction with the evening’s proceedings on the matter and made a motion to table the matter until council’s next meeting. His motion failed to gain a second.

Despite Partin’s reservations, council unanimously voted to create the committee and appointing all seven nominees.

Also Tuesday, two people spoke during the meeting’s public forum, both regarding the city’s proposed plan to build a sports complex and have it managed by the YMCA of Columbia.

Andrew Pope, a city resident, said he grew up in Georgia and went to a YMCA there from kindergarten through his middle school years.

“I had a tremendous experience,” Pope said. “I had a single mom and it was a great experience for Mother and I. It provides a lot more opportunities than just treadmills and weights. It’s a great place for kids to be other than out on the street. I pledge my support for moving forward and bringing a Y to Camden.”

Resident Mary Beth Shultz, however, said she was embarrassed to read of what she considered as Bronson’s “condescending … extremely rude and arrogant” behavior toward County Councilman Tom Gardner during a discussion of the YMCA proposal.

Shultz said Bronson had reportedly told Gardner that the city would not be involved in the process if it did not think the sports complex would be successful.

“Well, that’s the problem: you folks just think the project will succeed,” Shultz claimed. “You don’t know because you haven’t done your due diligence on this million dollar project. If you were so sure about this YMCA/sports complex, you would gladly otherwise you would gladly welcome a referendum.

“Will citizens join the YMCA … when they are totally ignored and have been publically ridiculed?”

Shultz also claimed that city employees have been instructed not to sign the referendum petition.

“These employees feel intimidated by the city and fear for their jobs if they participate in any activity contra to what the city is dictating,” Shultz claimed. “We citizens and county ‘tourists’ ask you to open yourself to meaningful communications instead of approaching people with arrogance and contempt.”

In an email Thursday, Bronson said he has not given any instructions relating to signing or not signing any petition.

“To the best of my knowledge, neither has any of the executive or supervisory level staff,” Bronson said. “City employees are free to sign whatever petition he or she feels adequately represents his or her point of view.”

Council will next meet at 8:30 a.m. Oct. 25.

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