The number one problem facing Mount Pleasant is long term financial viability. Our citizens’ desire to preserve quality of life, restrict over-development and protect green space all tie back to town finances.
In January 2019 at the town council retreat, staff presented a five year budget projection, stating that the town has the expected revenue to provide basic services for the next five years, after which time there will be a budget shortfall.
This projection is only for basic services. It does not include the $31 million needed for outstanding stormwater drainage projects, $60 million to complete the Mount Pleasant Way (a 28 mile interconnected bike path throughout the town), and $31 million to build out Rifle Range Park with new ball fields and recreational facilities. It also doesn’t include the $12 million in projects the town council has approved without a funding source (including $3 million annually to meet the fire department’s strategic plan and $1.8 million over three years for the Medal of Honor Heritage Center). We don’t have funds to build a community arts center. We don’t have funds for a second senior center. We don’t have funds to offer affordable or workforce housing. We don’t have funds to buy back land for parks or town facilities.
Though Mount Pleasant currently has a healthy fund balance, town council has not hesitated to dip into it, most recently to acquire the Wando Docks at just under $4.4 million with an estimated $3 million needed over the next five years to keep the space functional. While this was a worthy endeavor to subsidize and preserve the commercial shrimping industry that makes our town unique, diminishing the fund balance further could jeopardize our AAA bond rating and future financial stability.
Some would point to economic development as the town’s financial salvation. Unfortunately, there isn’t a single project on the books or in the pipeline that will make up for our impending shortfall, let alone fund the projects described above. In fact, the tax incentives the town offers minimize the impact economic development has on the town’s bottom line.
The proposed comprehensive plan points to a solution that voters have made clear is not the optimal answer: urbanization. By increasing population density, we increase our tax base. Development has been the financial lifeblood of Mount Pleasant, and supply is drying up. As the comprehensive plan states, the alternative to urbanization is raising taxes.
Mount Pleasant’s millage rate is incredibly low compared to our peer cities. We are at 41 mills, where Charleston is at 83.6 mills and North Charleston is at 97 mills. We still offer excellent services across the board on a lean budget. But soon it won’t be enough.
So the citizens of Mount Pleasant have a choice. Do we urbanize? Do we raise taxes? Some combination of the two? Do we limp along, reacting only when there is a budget shortfall? Or do we pay for what we want and get what we pay for? To me, the answer is clear.
First, we need to raise the stormwater fee and provide relief to our citizens who are under water after every hard rain. Staff advised Council of a need for the increase in January 2018 and no action has been taken in almost two years.
Second, we need to obtain public input to prioritize projects, and raise taxes to pay for them. We can and should include sunset provisions on increases related to capital improvement projects like Rifle Range Park and the Mount Pleasant Way.
While we have four years before the projected shortfall for basic services, balancing the budget will be an issue at our retreat in January 2020 due to the millions of dollars in unfunded council approvals. Finance Committee chair, Tom O’Rourke, has had the foresight to place this issue on the committee agenda for October. It’s time to stop kicking the can down the road.
We are entering an election season and four seats are open. As candidates make promises about quality of life, restricting growth and more, please ask the hard question. How will we pay for it?
Guang Ming Whitley serves as a councilmember for the Town of Mount Pleasant.