Council passes $1.8M budget, barely

Use Of Rainy-Day Reserves To Fund Events Causes Stir

BLYTHEWOOD – After briefly expressing their two opposing views, a divided Blythewood Town Council passed a $1.8 million budget Monday night for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

In a controversial measure, the council voted to pull a little less than $150,000 from almost $500,000 in hospitality tax reserves to fully fund a myriad of small and large-scale events aimed to draw people into town amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mayor Bryan Franklin and council members Eddie Baughman and Larry Griffin voted in favor of the plan; Council members Donald Brock and Sloan Griffin voted against it.

The original budget proposal was to reduce event funding in light of the drop in tax revenue caused by the impact of the virus and related shutdowns, but Franklin suggested instead to dip into reserves in hopes of putting on the events as usual – $25,000 to the Big Red Barn event that organizers said brought in about 1,000 people last year; $15,000 and $14,000 respectively to the Oktoberfest and Ribfest, each of which were reported to have brought in 2 – 3,000 attendees. Both events were organized by the Blythewood Chamber of Commerce.  At least $15,000 is budgeted for the Bravo BW Concert Series and more than $30,000 to eight more events.

The town will not be spending money for planned repairs, including the front porch and steps of the Hoffman House or for additional security cameras.

“At such critical times as these, do you not pull from your rainy-day fund? It’s not going to rain harder than it is right now in the town of Blythewood,” said Mayor Bryan Franklin, chief proponent of the decision.

“We want to stimulate this economy as quickly as possible to get people back in here spending money in our local businesses, staying at our local accommodations, and start to rebuild that fund back over time.”

In a previous meeting, the council members discussed the likelihood of continued lower-than-typical revenue and the likelihood of major events being cancelled by the need for social distancing as reasons to hold off on funding events.

On Monday, Councilman Donald Brock – who opposed funding the events on these grounds – was making a different case: the need to use the town’s savings to invest in large-scale capital improvement projects that could drive revenue up significantly for the long term.

He called the decision to pull money from the rainy-day fund for short-term plans “a mistake,” noting that the revenue situation could worsen as the pandemic remains an issue in the coming fiscal year.

“I think we have the proof of concept that there are other municipalities that, if we don’t do it, they’re going to do it, and they’re going to beat us to the punch,” Brock said of potential bigger-picture investments.

“We are situated in a wonderful location 20 minutes north of Columbia, about an hour south of Charlotte, we’re three hours or so away from Atlanta, a couple hours from Spartanburg-Greenville – you drive three hours in any direction, and you can capture 10+ million people. I think we have a real opportunity here to really do some good here with a sports complex or a water park or some combination – but something that would drive traffic to Blythewood every single day.”

Councilman Sloan Griffin agreed with Brock, pointing out that there are billboard signs south of town advertising attractions that are 75 miles away. He also noted the uncertainty about the timeline of post-Covid reopening.

It was Griffin who reported the latest Covid-19 numbers during the meeting: 25,666 cases in South Carolina, 2,704 in Richland County, and 118 in Blythewood’s 29016 zip code.

South Carolina has recently been identified in news reports as an emerging Covid-19 hotspot, where cases of the virus continue to rise, and state officials have said the trend may be bad enough to prevent school from reopening in the fall.

Franklin said he did not want the town to be left behind as the state reopens.

“What I’m trying to do here [is] stimulate the local economy here in Blythewood by hosting events, drawing crowds of people if it’s safe to do so, and then having people reinvest money back into the economy to help the businesses, which are the ones who pay the accommodations tax and the hospitality tax,” he said.

“That’s the optimistic outlook I’m looking at. If things turn dark and it gets worse, then we’ll have to revisit.”