Originally created 03/09/99

Aiken braces for hearing on two new taxes



AIKEN -- In a city where "tax" is a dirty word, March winds may be a swirl of protest over two new taxes on a fast track in local government.

Aiken City Council will find out March 22 how strong those winds are. That's when a 3 percent tax on overnight lodging and a 2 percent tax on prepared foods come up for public hearing.

An ordinance providing for both passed on its first reading Monday night, setting the stage for public comments and a final vote at the council's next meeting.

Savannah River Site retiree Peter Gray came to speak against the accommodations and hospitality taxes Monday and said he'll accept Mayor Fred B. Cavanaugh's invitation to come back for the hearing two weeks from now.

After the meeting, he said he knows numerous other residents who also oppose the taxes -- one essentially a tax on hotels and motels, and the other a tax on restaurants and other places that sell prepared foods.

The taxes are aimed at visitors but affect residents who eat out.

"Maybe this will be a wake-up call for the mayor about the short fuses that exist in the community on this issue," Mr. Gray said.

His own view is that Aiken is a "delightful" town that would lose some of its charm if it grows too much. "I love this town as it is," he said, "and you'll notice I call it a `town."'

"Life is transient. We all are here for a little while, and the only thing we can do is prepare the next generation to carry on ... If as a taxpayer, I have to pay money, I'd much rather pay it to educate our kids."

City officials are pushing the taxes to finance several major projects -- a tournament-quality tennis complex, expansion of Citizens Park, a skate park, new airport terminal, new Public Safety station, and live theater downtown. By state law both taxes must be designated to fund specific projects and end when those projects are paid for.

North Augusta, Columbia and Augusta have similar taxes.

Most council members appear to support the measure, although a first reading can be hard to discern. Members sometimes vote for a measure they don't like to set up a public hearing.

Mayor Pro Tem Skipper Perry said Monday, "I never thought I'd be on City Council the night we raised three taxes."

The third he referred to was a 5-2 vote to raise to 5 percent the franchise fee for South Carolina Electric & Gas Co. to serve customers in Aiken. The utility's franchise costs pass to consumers.

"I don't see us offering any relief to the poor property taxpayer," he said. "We just keep piling it on, piling it on, piling it on."

His comments led to a testy exchange with council member Karen Papouchado, who said, "I do what I think is right. I don't do things just to get elected."

Mr. Cavanaugh said between now and March 22, council members will have to decide whether they support the city's long-term vision, because there's no other way to pay for it.

Margaret N. O'Shea can be reached at (803) 279-6895 or scbureau@augustachronicle.com.