Columbia City Council eyes committee to address issues in tax study

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Chris Trainor
·4 min read
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A trio of Columbia City Council members have been tasked with exploring the possibility of a committee to address issues presented in a 2020 analysis that showed the Columbia area had the highest property taxes in the state among large metros.

Council members Howard Duvall, Daniel Rickenmann and Tameika Isaac Devine will form a working group that will seek to set the parameters for a possible committee to help solve issues raised in the analysis. In 2020, Council funded the $25,000 study authored by Rebecca Gunnlaugsson, principal at Acuitas Economics and former chief economist with the state Department of Commerce. The sprawling, 81-page analysis was presented to City Council last fall.

The study concluded that property taxes in the Columbia area levied by numerous entities within Richland County — are the highest among large metro areas in South Carolina, and have stymied growth in the Capital City in the last decade.

Gunnlaugsson’s study suggested that, in order for Columbia to become more competitive with places like Greenville and Charleston, the city, Richland County and Richland County’s school districts need to work collaboratively to reduce commercial property tax rates, lobby the state government to overhaul part of its tax code, combine city and county services that are overlapping, and develop a “cooperative financial approach” between the county’s school systems, among other steps.

While Council ultimately voted unanimously at a Tuesday meeting to have Duvall, Rickenmann and Devine work to set up the boundaries for a committee to dig into solutions for the tax issue, that vote came only after some animated conversation about the issue. That included an insistence from third-term Mayor Steve Benjamin that any committee that would work on issues related to the tax study should be focused on actually coming up with solutions, and not merely using it as a platform to “beat up on the city” in an election year.

While there are several seats up for election in the city in November, the centerpiece is the race for mayor, with Benjamin not seeking reelection. Devine and Rickenmann, each longtime Council members, are running, as is Sam Johnson, a former top aide to Benjamin and a deeply connected city insider.

While he ultimately agreed to be a part of the trio of members that would help shape a committee that would dig into the tax study, Duvall said that tackling the issue during what will doubtlessly be a politically charged election year could prove tough.

“The issues that were pointed out in the tax study are very complicated issues, many of those issues cannot be settled by a group sitting around with the county and the school districts and the city,” Duvall said. “It’s going to have to be settled at the legislative level. I fear that starting up this (committee) at the same time we are starting up an election season that is going to elect four new members of this Council is the wrong time to start up this study.”

Rickenmann said he hoped a committee could be formed, regardless of the election season, pointing out that Columbia and Richland County have been aware of tax issues for a long time.

“I do think it is important that we move this forward,” Rickenmann said. “Let’s don’t use election season to slow anything down, because the reality is this is about Columbia. ... I just don’t want it to sit it on the shelf.”

Benjamin, who participated in a public forum about the tax study with the Columbia Chamber in December, has been quick to note, among other things, that City of Columbia property taxes have gone down over the last decade. Tax millage has largely risen because of hikes from Richland County and the county’s school districts.

“We’re going to move forward with establishing this committee, but it needs to be important that we lay out to people who want to work on the committee that we must be solutions-oriented for the people, the working people of this city,” Benjamin said. “I’ll be frank with you. I’m not going to sit around for the next eight, nine, 10 months and watch people beat up on the city.”