Bed-tax applicants down; airport request scrutinized

Fewer nonprofit arts, cultural and tourism groups are requesting money from Hilton Head Island's accommodations-tax revenues.

But several continue to request substantial amounts, and one new applicant -- the Hilton Head Island Airport -- has stirred controversy.

Competition was stiff last year: 31 applicants applied for $2.3 million with about $900,000 available. This year, 21 applicants are requesting $1.4 million with about $800,000 available for new grants for 2012.

The airport request would likely be heavily scrutinized by the committee and the Town Council, according to Willis Shay, vice chairman of the town's Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee.

Beaufort County, which owns and operates the airport, last year withdrew its request for $300,000 after the ATAX committee said it would likely deny it.

By law, the money must be used to support tourism on the island.

This year, the county is requesting $115,237 to help shore up a shortfall of more than $300,000 to provide police and fire protection at the airport.

According to the county's application, the airport collected more than $400,000 from the Transportation Security Administration and U.S. Airways but spent more than $700,000 for three sheriff's deputies and seven firefighters for the fiscal year that ended June 30. The airport had been able to recover most of its fire and police protection costs until Delta Air Lines left last fall, county airports director Paul Andres said.

"Fire and police protection services are critical to the overall success and safety of operations, and are a significant contributor to the airport's ability to attract tourists and visitors to the Island," wrote Andres. "Up to this point in time, the town has not contributed to airport operations, in spite of the obvious benefit and contribution (the airport) makes to the town's economic viability."

State law says local governments can use bed-tax dollars for law enforcement and fire protection when required to serve tourists and tourist facilities. But Shay argues the law applies exclusively to the town, not the county.

The S.C. Tourism Expenditure Review Committee, responding to the town's request for its opinion, said bed-tax money cannot be used as an additional source of revenue for services normally provided, such as the airport's police and fire protection. The committee, however, does allow the town to use the tax money for costs to hire and equip firefighters and rescue personnel to accommodate an estimated 2 million annual visitors, town attorney Brian Hulbert said.

Should Town Council grant the airport's request, the state committee could choose to withhold the revenue. The town and county could then appeal to an administrative law judge, according to the law.

"We protect the tourists as they arrive on the island at the airport with firefighting and police," county airports board chairman Joe Mazzei said. "We don't understand the distinction between why protection of the same tourists is different at the airport than it is in the town."

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/EyeOnHiltonHead.

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