By Paul Gable
Horry County Council will consider extending its contract with the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce for distribution of the 30% accommodations tax collections state law mandates must go for tourism promotion.
The extension will be for one final year. Next year a new contract must be negotiated by the county and it is hoped other direct marketing organizations will step forward to compete with the Chamber for this contract.
When the accommodations tax enabling legislation was passed by the General Assembly over 20 years ago, the provision mandating 30% of the revenue collected must be spent for tourism promotion was included specifically at the request of the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce and its CEO at the time Ashby Ward.
The Chamber was a struggling organization at the time with membership dues providing most of its operating revenue and a modest little white building on Kings Highway serving as its headquarters.
Accommodations tax money provided the Chamber with its first taste of a steady stream of public tax dollars into its coffers. Over the first decade of this century, ‘greed is good’ apparently became the unofficial motto with grants from the General Assembly added to those coffers and, beginning in 2009, the institution of the tourism development fee.
According to its Form 990 filings, last year the Myrtle Beach Chamber received $51 million in public tax dollars or, put another way, $1 million dollars (in round numbers) in public tax dollars every week of the year.
There is very little transparency as to how this money is spent. According to a S.C. Supreme Court decision for the Hilton Head Chamber of Commerce, these dollars effectively cease being subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act the minute they are transferred from local or state governments to the Chamber.
How decisions are made or contracts are awarded by the Chamber for the expenditure of this $1 million a week of public dollars is conducted behind closed doors.
Additionally, over the last 20 years, the Chamber has leveraged these public dollars to provide increased private income to the Chamber that is reported separately to the IRS and not available for any public scrutiny.
A portion of these private dollars are provided to the Grand Strand Business Alliance through an arrangement between that organization and the Chamber. Those dollars are the ones that actively engage in political lobbying and donations to preferred local politicians through various PACs run by the GSBA.
The use of those dollars was apparent when the Chamber and the GSBA lobbied for County Council to provide local funding for Interstate 73 and ads were run promoting the five county council members who voted for that funding (see above cartoon). Fortunately, six members of council voted against I-73 funding but that discussion has not gone away although it failed at both the local and state level last year.
A particular point of view could see these public tax dollars coming back as private dollars used against some of the very politicians who appropriate the public money.
The amount to be appropriated by county council tonight is a modest $1.5 million when compared to the Chamber’s overall take of $51 million public tax dollars.
The county Administration Committee carved out $325,000 of the amount to be appropriated to go to the other local chambers in the county to help promote festivals and special events those chambers promote. In addition, current Myrtle Beach Chamber CEO Karen Riordan pledged her organization would match those funds to the other local chambers for a total of $650,000 to those organizations.
Before you consider that a magnanimous gesture on the part of the Myrtle Beach Chamber, consider the $325,000 in matching funds is less than Riordan’s annual salary and approximately two days take of the approximately $1 million per week the Myrtle Beach Chamber receives from local and state governments.
The resolution appropriating these funds is listed on council’s consent agenda, but it should be opened for discussion in an attempt to have more transparency in how these dollars are spent.
Additionally, public discussion by council should allow the voters to determine which county council members willingly kowtow to the Chamber Cabal’s wishes.