Council puts tax grants under the microscope – Coastal Observer


Council puts tax grants under the microscope

Funds for the Murrells Inlet-Garden City FD marine program raised questions.

The annual award of accommodations tax grants that rarely provokes comment came under scrutiny this week by Georgetown County Council, with members saying they struggled to find the rationale for some of the funding proposals.

“This is $1.6 million I’ve got to justify to all my people. I’m not just going to rubber stamp it,” Council Member Clint Elliott said.

He took office in January, the month after the council approved $1.5 million in grants for an array of public services, events and marketing all tied to the tourism that is the source of the tax revenue.

This year, the Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee reviewed 22 requests totaling $2.2 million. It had $1.6 million to spend.  The committee recommended that County Council cut some requests when the grants come up for approval in December.

The biggest cut was to a request from the county’s rural fire district for a water rescue boat. The committee approved $9,950 to equip the boat, but not the $65,000 needed to buy the boat, motor and trailer.

Council Member Stella Mercado, who also took office after last year’s round of tax grants, questioned why the rural district, the only public safety agency in the county without a boat, didn’t get one while Murrells Inlet-Garden City Fire Department  was recommended for nearly $150,000 for its water safety program, including a new Jet Ski.

Lauren Joseph, who chairs the advisory committee, explained that was because the law requires the tax to be spent primarily in the areas where it is collected.

Garden City “is one of the biggest clumps of accommodations tax money,” she said. “Historically, they ask for very little.”

Mercado asked what sort of data the county has to show where the tax is generated. 

Joseph said that’s difficult because rental companies don’t want to divulge proprietary information. Many also rent properties in multiple jurisdictions. So the committee, whose makeup is required by state law to represent  tourism interests, uses its own experience.

“It’s just kind of seeing what’s out there and kind of knowing,” Joseph said.

Elliott asked if there is a formula the committee uses in recommending grants, such as the rescue boat.

“We didn’t feel we had the money to give 100 percent of what was asked,” Joseph said. 

Elliott also asked how a $6,000 recommendation for a Mac & Cheese Cook​off in Litchfield compared with a $2,500 recommendation for the Murrells Inlet 2020 oyster roast, which was cut from $10,000.

Joseph said committee members felt the oyster roast was more of a community event. The cookoff is a summer event that they think can grow.

“That made me wonder,” Mercado said.

Council Chairman Louis Morant questioned how the recommendation of $25,000 to fund the renovation of a former slave cabin at Hopsewee Plantation on the Santee River meshed with the goal of spending money where it’s generated. He was also concerned about funding projects on private property.

“That is adding to their tourism draw,” Joseph said.  “It’s a good return on the investment.”

Council Member Everett Carolina, whose district includes Hopsewee, defended the project as
“a major draw.”

“I just can’t get around that,” Morant said.

Funding for median landscaping on Highway 17 was also questioned by Elliott, who said he would like to see if that funding – $194,780 to six organizations – could be consolidated.

Beth Goodale, the county parks director, said that is a goal she has been working on, but it’s hard to make a comparison between the groups and the level of work.

“It seems from my perspective that there is a lot of gray in the decision-making,” Mercado said, adding that she thought the advisory committee was doing its best.

Administrator Angela Christian said she and staff in the finance department have discussed ways to tweak the process to get more information for next year’s grant requests.

In the meantime, she told the council, “you certainly can make modifications as you see fit.”



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