Editorial: Tax clash unnecessary when state law clear

Beaufort's accommodations tax advisory committee should keep an open mind about the city's new request for more money to cover tourism-related city expenses. It is logical, and it is legal.

The 2 percent state "bed tax" on overnight lodging is a godsend to Beaufort and cities and counties statewide. We have a special appreciation for it because it is a legacy of former Beaufort County leaders, including the late state Rep. Harriet Keyserling of Beaufort and the late Hilton Head Island hospitality industry leader John Curry.

It is a godsend because it helps tourists more than pay for themselves, particularly when coupled with the hospitality tax on prepared food and drinks and Hilton Head's beach preservation tax on overnight lodging.

The bill states how the money can be spent. It is clear about what segments of the community are to be represented on the advisory committee. It states what minimums must go to tourism marketing. It states what the money cannot be spent for, and it lays out public accountability measures.

And it clearly defines its primary purpose: "tourism-related expenditures."

The primary function is marketing. But it also includes spending by local governments for tourism-related general expenses, such as "the criminal justice system, law enforcement, fire protection, solid waste collection, and health facilities when required to serve tourists and tourist facilities. This is based on the estimated percentage of costs directly attributed to tourists." It can include public facilities such as restrooms, dressing rooms, parks and parking lots; and tourist shuttle transportation.

Clearly, the Beaufort City Council can make a strong case for a much larger piece of the pie than it has been seeking.

But the City Council also has played a strong hand in recent years in telling the advisory committee what to do. It wanted the committee to leverage dollars and vet local entities seeking bed-tax grants, with the goal being more and better-coordinated marketing. And that's why the advisory committee chair is stunned to see this new tack espoused by Mayor Billy Keyserling.

City Council should not muddle up state law by interjecting its own standards for grant-making, especially if it wants to take half the total amount available for its own tourism-related expenses. It wants $250,000 for those expenses, while the advisory committee had recommended $5,000.

Both sides in the clash can make a good argument. But at the end of the day, what must rule is state law, and state law is clear. Beaufort City Council needs to make its long-term expectations equally as clear.