Beaufort's leaner budget right for city, taxpayers

info@islandpacket.comJune 27, 2013 

A couple enjoys the view of the Beaufort River at the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park in downtown Beaufort.

FILE/STAFF PHOTO

Beaufort City Council deserves credit for nixing two bad ideas for new revenue: what would have amounted to a property tax for nonprofit organizations and a "transportation fee" that would have been a tax on every resident who owns a vehicle.

Instead, the council cut $180,000 from a $17.7 million budget before giving it final approval Tuesday. The council also raised the city's property tax rate and the fee on trash collection, politically difficult but fiscally necessary decisions.

A lean budget is unpleasant, but it forces tough examination of city priorities.

And while the city deserves plaudits for the budget it just passed, there is still progress to be made in setting spending priorities.

Mayor Billy Keyserling and others lament the cost of upkeep for the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park -- a public amenity vital to the financial health of the downtown district, but which could cost $265,000 to $450,000 a year to maintain. He notes that those who do not live in the city contribute mightily to its wear and tear.

That is true, but this line of reasoning always seems to be preamble to a plea for other governments to contribute to maintaining a city asset. It should not be necessary.

Construction of a park or similar amenities often are justified on the grounds that they will bring business to the city and expand the tax base. Implicit in this argument is that it will be enough to pay for ongoing maintenance.

If it does not turn out that way, one of two things probably occurred: City leaders who argued for these public works were wrong about their economic or tax revenue impact, or money that could have used for maintenance has been diverted to other uses.

This is something the city -- and Beaufort County and the town of Port Royal, for that matter -- should keep in mind as the Spanish Moss Trail is developed. It, too, has been billed as an economic driver, but plans for it so far have been focused on construction costs, not long-term maintenance.

Make no mistake: We're in favor of the trail, but we're also in favor of ensuring it isn't overgrown 10 years after it's built.

And Beaufort shouldn't expect other governments to maintain its trails and parks any more than it should be compelled to maintain, for example, Hilton Head Island's beaches and bike paths, even though it certainly benefits indirectly from them and the visitors they draw.

If Waterfront Park or other tourist attractions cannot be kept in good repair with property tax revenue, then the city could maintain them with proceeds from its local accommodations or hospitality taxes. That's an appropriate use of that money and would shift some of the financial burden to visitors who use the park, which seems to be among the aims of Keyserling and other city officials.

The mayor is not misguided in seeking to distribute the maintenance costs more evenly. City Council's resolve to make difficult budget choices for the coming fiscal year suggests the city is capable of finding the right way to do it.

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