Charleston looking for funding sources to address $2 billion drainage needs

In this year’s state of the city address, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg announced plans to double down on making the city more flood-proof.

The goal could take decades and more than $2 billion to reach, so the first order of business is finding the money to tackle the challenge.

At the mayor’s request, state Sen. Marlon Kimpson, D-Charleston, introduced a bill last month that would give municipalities more flexibility to spend tourism tax dollars on drainage and flood-related projects.The measure was approved Wednesday by the Senate Finance Committee, so it could be brought to the floor for a vote soon.

The city currently collects three different taxes on tourist activities: a state and local tax on accommodations, such as hotel stays, and a local hospitality tax on the sale of food and beverages at restaurants.

These taxes generated about $26.5 million last year.

The state limits how those funds can be spent, and it generally requires this money to be spent on projects that support tourism.

The proposed clarification would allow local governments to spend it on “the control and repair of flooding and drainage at tourism-related lands or areas,” according to the bill.

The city’s Chief Financial Officer Amy Wharton said that would create a new revenue stream for drainage projects on the peninsula, such as Calhoun West, which is expected to be the largest and most expensive drainage project in the city’s history.

“That can free up money to other areas that aren’t considered tourist-related,” she said.

Tecklenburg said the city will also look for other ways to leverage tourism revenue.

“Once we have the flexibility to direct tourism dollars toward flooding and drainage, we’re also going to need the freedom to implement responsible new tourist fees to help pay for these projects in the years ahead,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, several city departments are creating new positions this year to put more manpower toward drainage work.

In the mayor’s executive department, Tecklenburg created the Office of Resilience and Emergency Management led by Chief Resilience Officer Mark Wilbert.

When Wilbert’s position was created last year to work on preparing Charleston for climate change, it fulfilled one of the 76 goals laid out in the 2015 Charleston Sea Level Rise Strategy. But Wilbert also continued serving as the city’s emergency management director, which made some officials question if his resiliency duties would get enough attention.

This year, the city will hire a full-time emergency management director to report to Wilbert. The existing emergency management assistant is also part of the new team.

Wilbert said it made sense to keep emergency management in the same office as the resiliency efforts because they both deal with extreme weather.

“A big part of it is, ‘How well are you prepared to respond to catastrophic events?'” he said.

The office will work on updating the Sea Level Rise Strategy by June with new information about the work done over the past three years and the direction the city is heading in the near future. It also might add new scientific data about sea level rise, Wilbert said.

The Public Services Department, which oversees drainage infrastructure, is adding a new floodplain manager to work with homeowners on flooding challenges. That will give department leaders more time to focus on other new tasks, such as retooling the city’s building codes for future development in low-lying areas.

The Department of Budget, Finance and Revenue Collections is hiring its first full-time grant writer to seek money for drainage and resiliency projects. Wharton said the new hire will bring a new level of expertise to the department.

“We were pulling people when they had time to look for grants and things like that,” she said. “Now, having a dedicated person to be looking all the time for new grant opportunities and writing those grants, we can have a better knowledge of what’s out there.”