Hilton Head mayor: 'We're not getting any help from Columbia'

tbarton@islandpacket.comJanuary 11, 2012 

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Hilton Head Island Mayor Drew Laughlin blasted S.C. legislators Wednesday for changes in property-tax laws that he says hamstring efforts to boost the local economy.

"We have a state property tax structure that is very, very damaging to local government like ours that depend on people buying second homes and investment properties and are trying to revitalize commercial property," Laughlin said during his State of the Town address. "We're not getting any help from Columbia. ... They honestly think most local government can't be trusted to make prudent decisions on their own."

The meeting was organized by the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area.

A 2006 state law, for the most part, prevents counties and municipalities from raising property taxes rates to pay for services except to account for increases in population and inflation. Laughlin said legislators' hostility to "local self-determination" needs to end.

"The citizens of Hilton Head Island and of any other municipality should have the right to decide what taxes they want to impose on themselves and what they don't," Laughlin said after the meeting. "It becomes important when you ask: Do we build an aquatics center? Do we build additional recreational facilities? Do we build anything that requires operating costs? Because, if we do, something else has got to give."

He said he's particularly frustrated by legislators allowing Myrtle Beach, but not other municipalities, to impose a penny sales tax. Myrtle Beach is the only city to pass a one-cent sales tax to fund tourism advertising under an option given by the state legislature in 2009, although Hilton Head Island considered it.

Laughlin said he's not criticizing the Beaufort County legislative delegation, "but this business of trying to run everything from Columbia has got to stop."

Two local legislators agree the tax changes were flawed -- they were not in office at the time they were passed -- but oppose changes that would increase taxes on homeowners, and hesitate to give the town new taxing power.

Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, in an email Wednesday, said the legislature should focus on eliminating "ridiculous" sales-tax loopholes and provide tax relief for second homes and for commercial, manufacturing and industrial properties, similar to what the 2006 law gave for owner-occupied homes. Davis said he would consider legislation giving local governments new taxing powers if they are "approved by a majority vote of the people in a mandatory election."

Rep. Andy Patrick, R-Hilton Head, agreed with Davis' stance on more local government taxing authority. He also took issue with what he called Laughlin's "hyberbolic rhetoric."

"I am not hostile to 'local self-determination,' " he wrote.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead

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