To hear the mainstream media tell it, the decade-long reign of Columbia, South Carolina mayor Steve Benjamin has been a golden era for the capital city – full of politically correct teachable moments and progressive inclusion.
Of course, these same outlets excused the scandal that ushered Benjamin into office …
For those of you who have already forgotten that bit of Palmetto political history, Benjamin was involved in an election night car crash which left a Columbia hotel worker with permanent physical damage (she has since died of cancer).
Well, technically the event transpired at 5:45 a.m. EDT the morning after his election … when the Mercedes’ sport utility vehicle Benjamin was driving slammed into the driver’s side of the woman’s Toyota Tercel.
Multiple sources told this news outlet that Benjamin was drinking alcohol well into the morning hours prior to the crash. Despite this, Benjamin was not given a breathalyzer exam – nor was blood drawn from him following the incident to determine his blood alcohol content.
The crash lent Benjamin one of his most famous nicknames – “T-Bone.”
Of course, the collision was only the beginning of the scandal. The (mis)handling of the investigation into the crash soon became the real story. Things got so bad Columbia’s chief of police was ultimately fired for rebuking the city’s meddling into the inquiry.
And Benjamin’s hand-picked replacement chief? Oye …
Upon taking office, Benjamin charted an anti-competitive, fiscally unsustainable course for the city. In addition to shortchanging core functions of government (here and here), he embarked on several failed command economic ventures – most notably the botched Bull Street redevelopment.
Meanwhile, he and his “Republican” allies have sought to erode individual liberty within the city limits – denying law-abiding citizens the right to protect themselves from the violent criminals who continue being turned out onto the city’s streets (including a few who were controversially awarded bond by Benjamin’s wife, a S.C. circuit court judge).
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With Benjamin declining to seek another term in office, a trio of candidates have emerged ahead of the November 2021 election. One is Sam Johnson – a former advisor to Benjamin who works for a local law firm. Another is veteran city councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine, who along with her husband – local school board leader Jamie Devine – has been at the heart of numerous scandals. Finally, city councilman and local small business owner Daniel Rickenmann has announced his intention to campaign for the seat.
There are rumors of others potentially jumping into the fray, but as of this writing those are the three frontrunners …
While there are obviously any number of issues to focus on as this campaign takes shape, none loom larger than the city’s oppressive tax climate – which was exposed in a recent report by Rebecca Gunnlaugsson, principal at Acuitas Economics.
(Click to view)
According to Gunnlaugsson’s analysis (.pdf), South Carolina’s capital city has a punitively high commercial property tax rate (among other anti-competitive levies) – one twice as high as Charleston’s rate and 1.5 times higher than Greenville’s rate.
Additionally, the city is struggling under the oppressive weight of the multitude of local governments that converge on the capital – bringing with them their own anti-competitive tax burdens (and duplicative bureaucracies).
Richland county, for example, has a property tax rate that is 2.1 times higher than Charleston county’s rate and 1.9 times higher than Greenville county’s rate. Meanwhile, the scandal-plagued Richland county school district one – run by Devine’s husband – has a millage rate that is 1.8 times higher than Charleston’s rate and 1.5 times higher than Greenville’s rate.
Columbia’s only saving grace? The fact that neighboring Lexington, S.C. has similarly anti-competitive tax rates.
But still, Columbia’s growth is lagging behind that of Greenville and Charleston.
In addition to calling out the city for its ongoing inability to attract jobs and investment, Gunnlaugsson rebuked the notion that further command economic misadventures would solve its problem.
“Selective tax breaks for specific developers has not and will not fuel the broad-based, continued growth the City needs,” Gunnlaugsson wrote. “Instead, it will continue to drive greater imbalance in tax rates between a few select properties and all others, while not delivering on the promise of new jobs, rising wages, and increasing future development.”
Now more than ever, Columbia is in desperate need of a vision for the future of its municipal government that puts core functions first and focuses on reducing the tax burden for all citizens and businesses. Clearly, the city cannot tolerate any more corruption, cronyism or crime – but it also cannot maintain its current crippling tax climate and expect things to get better.
Are any of the candidates who have announced for mayor capable of offering such a vision for the city?
We shall see …
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