Can the Columbia area’s high taxes get fixed? Economists set to weigh in

·3 min read

A year ago, the Columbia City Council commissioned a tax analysis that ultimately showed the capital city area had the highest property taxes in the state among large metro areas.

This week, a trio of economists are set to weigh in on the matter.

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 81-page analysis was presented to City Council last fall. It concluded that property taxes in the Columbia area — levied by numerous entities within Richland County — have stymied growth in the capital city in the last decade.

Subsequently, the council formed a subcommittee — chaired by at-large Councilman Howard Duvall and also featuring council members Daniel Rickenmann and Tameika Isaac Devine, both of whom are running for mayor — to look into the matter. Each of those committee members then selected an economist to examine Gunnlaugsson’s analysis and offer advice on how to best move forward.

Those economists are Dr. Stephen JK Walters, professor emeritus of economics at Loyola University of Maryland; Dr. Jim London, professor emeritus at Clemson University with a doctorate in applied economics; and Dr. Holley Ulbrich, professor emerita of economics at Clemson. Walters was selected by Rickenmann, who was a main proponent of the 2020 analysis commissioned by the city. London was selected by Devine and Ulbrich was tapped by Duvall.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, Walters, London and Ulbrich will make presentations to the tax study committee. That virtual session will be viewable on the city’s YouTube page.

Per Gunnlaugsson’s analysis, though the city of Columbia’s property tax rates have actually gone down by 4.4 percent in the last decade, the combined rate when factoring in taxes from Richland County and the county school districts puts the Columbia area above comparable cities in South Carolina. The combined commercial property tax rate in Columbia is nearly two times higher than Charleston, about 1.5 times higher than Greenville and 1.2 times higher than Rock Hill, per the study.

Gunnlaugsson’s study also points out Columbia’s more modest population growth when compared to other cities, a fact that has only been driven home since the release of the 2020 numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The census now shows Columbia with a population of 136,632. That’s a 5.7% gain over 2010, when the capital city’s population was 129,272. Meanwhile, 150,227 people now live in Charleston, up 25.1% from 2010. And the city of Greenville’s population is now at 70,720, per the census, up from 58,409 in 2010. That was a 21% hike.

Duvall said Thursday’s economist presentations will be a way to “get the issue out on the table.” He said, as the city works to address the tax and growth issues, it will likely take some “delicate diplomacy” to bring other local governments, such as school districts, which contribute heavily to the property taxes paid by area residents, to the table to dig into tangible solutions.

He also said the city and local governments would likely need to lobby the state government to overhaul part of its tax code, which also is noted in Gunnlaugsson’s analysis.

The discussion is coming at a moment in which Columbia City Council is set to be made over. There will be at least three new members possibly four, depending on who wins the mayoral race — on the seven-person council following November’s municipal election.

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