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York County hospitality tax committee considers spending strategies

Beware the numbers.

Tom Smith, newly elected vice chairman of York County’s Hospitality Tax Advisory Committee, says it’s dollar figures and percentages that could get the group in trouble. New chairman Watts Huckabee says it’s council district numbers.

“This is a county tax charged in the unincorporated areas,” said Huckabee, a Rock Hill business owner. “We’ve got to be careful singling out specific districts.”

The group is still in its infancy and needs to approve bylaws and have another member appointed. But already a divide is emerging – whether it’s more important to account for where the money comes from, or in deciding where it goes.

“There’s a disproportionate amount of money,” said Smith, a developer and former York County Council member from District 2. “It’s going to become a heartache when we start talking about needs in certain areas.”

Districts 1, 2 and 7 include unincorporated parts of Fort Mill, Tega Cay, Lake Wylie and Clover. Those districts bring in more than 86 percent of county hospitality tax dollars, which come from a 2-cent tax charged on prepared food and beverages in unincorporated areas.

Yet those districts rank fourth, sixth and seventh among seven districts in money received through hospitality-related projects.

“There hasn’t been a return on investment,” Smith said. “It’s going to blow up at some point. It’s only natural.”

Huckabee says the group should create a list of county needs and let anyone with funding-eligible projects know what they’re looking for, rather than worrying with “setting ‘x’ percentages of the money for this district or that district.”

“We have got to look at this as a county issue,” he said. “If we come up with a vision, they’ll come to us.”

Charles “Chick” Williams, a retiree who represents District 7 on the advisory committee, says that approach works best.

“That’s what I thought this committee was organized for,” he said.

At-large member Jayne Scarborough, executive director with the Olde English District, agrees.

“Having a broader vision is going to serve us better,” she said.

The group recently agreed on plans that include reviewing tourism and recreation studies. The group is slated to bring in public and private stakeholders to see what the county needs and how they can encourage funding-eligible projects to meet those needs.

Smith said he hopes future spending will be more equitable to the highest collection areas. Otherwise, he foresees a scenario where Fort Mill and Tega Cay would continue annexing toward each other, and Lake Wylie would become a town, leaving less area to generate tax dollars.

“Then we won’t ever have to talk about this because this tax will go away,” he said. “A lot of what’s happened has been seen as the haves and the have-nots.”

Group members hope whatever feelings there are from money spent since collection began in 2007, they won’t linger in future decisions.

“From today forward,” Huckabee said, “we’re handling it differently.”

The advisory committee was formed earlier this year by the York County Council. Council members favor prioritizing recreational facilities as a way to promote tourism.

At an Aug. 18 meeting, council members approved $180,037 in hospitality tax money to promote nine projects: Arts Council of York County ($50,000), Culture & Heritage Commission ($35,818), Olde English Tourism District ($25,000), South Carolina Strawberry Festival ($22,137), ChristmasVille ($20,000), Summerfest ($10,524), Ag + Art Tour ($7,000), Lake Wylie Riversweep ($5,158) and Anne Springs Close Greenway Fiddle n’ Pig Shindig ($4,400).