After six months of consideration, deliberation and a unanimous vote of endorsement by an appointed ad hoc committee, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg presented his 2021 budget to Charleston City Council for the first time in late October. The irony is not lost on us, and we are sure is it not on you, that during those same six months, the Charleston we all know was hit as hard as any city in the country by the collateral economic and social effects of a global pandemic and national unrest. And we knew it.
Given the realities of our times and the actual and measurable economic burden 2020 has inflicted on the citizens and small businesses in our community, we could not have imagined that the budget would propose property tax increases (a combination of tax rate increase and a rollback of the heretofore sacred local option sales tax credit) of historic proportions.
Yet it had few, if any, equivalent cuts in expenses or increases in essential services. We believe that when coupled with a statutorily mandated countywide property value reassessment and corresponding tax increase for some property owners, the economic model of funding city government through huge property tax increases is antithetical to the stated goal of supporting citizens and businesses as they seek to rebound. And we objected.
Every citizen, whether a property owner or not, feels the effects of a property tax increase. The burden you feel bears no relation to your pay or your business’s bottom line. The rationale used for looking to increased property taxes rather than balancing the budget by cuts and/or seeking other sources of revenue is that the burden to the owner of a $300,000 single family, primary residence home, is de minimis. It may be. Such a homeowner also is increasingly mythical.
A quick review of real estate transactions over a four-week period in September shows that approximately 6% of transactions fit that tidy and convenient category. The remainder exceeds it, and in most instances geometrically. Add commercial property on top (which includes every rental dwelling in the city), and the example quickly becomes irrelevant to many city residents.
Budgeting and planning are synonymous. The challenges we face in meeting our balanced budget obligations in 2021 will be as great, if not greater, in the years to come. Our core industry, tourism, was hit harder than any other in the world this year. It will take time for it to rebound. We, as a city, are partners in the tourism industry, and it will take a while for us to rebound, too.
As we rebound, we can address the additional livability challenges that are ever-present.
Strategic management of city-owned assets and thoughtful restructuring of government need to be part of the daily lexicon of city leaders. Repeated and yearly property tax increases simply will not work.
There is some good news. Since the budget was presented, the objections of a few council members about the property tax burden have been met with a flurry of activity that led to cuts that are sensible and will not reduce the delivery of core services. Several new sources of revenue also were identified.
We applaud the hard work of our colleagues and overworked staff in meeting the challenge.
We can, and must, do better.
Marie Delcioppo represents Charleston City Council District 1, which includes Daniel Island; Mike Seekings represents District 8, and Kevin Shealy represents District 2. Editor’s Note: This OpEd was written prior to the City Council’s Dec. 15 vote, and expresses the concerns from council members about the tax increases.