By Bill Rauch
Now is a moment Henry Chambers would have relished.
Following the former mayor’s recent death, the coverage of Chambers’ tenure has focused largely on his aggressive and against-the-odds push to bring to fruition what we now know as the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. The Waterfront Park was a transformative triumph to be sure, but there was so much more. Henry, for example, was the one who first took the city across the Beaufort River to bring the Lady’s Island Marina complex into the city’s limits. A fierce advocate of growing the city’s limits — especially to increase its business tax base — it was Henry, too, who stretched the city’s limits out to the Cross Creek Shopping Center.
Both efforts were lengthy, complex and deeply controversial.
The 2009 Beaufort County Northern Area Plan established future growth boundaries for Beaufort and Port Royal and thus removed some of the drama that was previously attendant to annexations north of the Broad River. Yet even in the present-day low-drama climate, the current Beaufort City Council’s attitude toward growing the city’s boundaries, including its all-important business tax base, has been Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.
No similar malaise has affected the Port Royal Town Council.
If the current Beaufort City Council continues in their present countenance, soon they will begin missing a big opportunity, an opportunity that Henry Chambers and other more aggressive mayors would not have let pass.
Wait. What? Why?
During the recent budget season something happened that has gone largely unnoticed because one part of the puzzle revealed itself in the Beaufort County Council’s chambers and the other came about in the council chambers in Beaufort’s City Hall. The Burton Fire District put their millage rate up 4.18 mils and the City of Beaufort raised theirs 1.02 mil so that on next year’s property tax bills the city’s millage rate will be 74.59 and Burton’s will be 73.97. This parity of rates (roughly six-tenths of a mil), coming for years but now arrived, changes the dynamic for the city’s growth into the Burton Fire District.
Port Royal is shrewdly right in the middle at 74.
Simply put, it means current residents in the Burton Fire District, if their property is contiguous to the City of Beaufort, can for six-tenths of a mil get city services. Those services would be, for starters, trash pick-up, a Class 1 ISO rating that will lower their homeowner’s insurance premiums, police response times under five minutes, and faster and less burdensome building permits and inspections. For the contiguous businesses in the area of the Marine Corps Air Station and along S.C. 170 to the new fire station, the opportunity is sweeter still: discounts on business licenses, and three years of the city portion of their property tax payments rebated.
The City should be making its plans now to reach out to these businesses.
In the words of Alice Howard, who represents on the County Council both the incorporated Beaufort and unincorporated Burton Fire District areas, the fire district has had to increase its tax rate “because Burton’s tax base is shrinking.”
Why is Burton’s tax base shrinking?
Because the Town of Port Royal — who in recent years has been more aggressive than Beaufort about growing its boundaries — has been growing substantially into the Burton Fire District. When properties annex into Port Royal or Beaufort they no longer contribute their non-county/non-school district property taxes to Burton, but instead those monies go to one of the municipalities’ treasuries.
Does the city benefit from these expansions?
Will the city seek these expansions?
That is the question. In an election year will the city expend the effort to get the word out? Will they say the A-word? Are they committed to aggressively protecting the city’s stature as the commercial center of northern Beaufort County? Do they care that doing so lowers the pressure on their residential taxpayers?
The early indications — and their recent performance — suggest that they will not. ”
Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.