Columbia area’s high taxes to be probed by three economists

Chris Trainor
·3 min read

A group of Columbia City Council members has been working out how best to dive into the issues an economist highlighted in a 2020 study that showed the Columbia area has an issue with high taxes.

Their first move? Bringing on more economists.

Council members Howard Duvall, Tameika Isaac Devine and Daniel Rickenmann were tasked with exploring a possible committee to address issues presented in a 2020 analysis that showed the Columbia area had the highest property taxes in the state among large metros.

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 sprawling, 81-page analysis was presented to City Council last fall. The study 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.

An eventual committee to delve into the issue will likely bring together leaders from various governments and entities in the Columbia area. Now Devine, Rickenmann and Duvall are seeking the advice of additional economists to help shape the committee’s path forward.

“We decided that it might be best for each of us to find an economist who can review Dr. Gunnlaugsson’s study and meet with us to give us any feedback and considerations as we move forward,” Devine said.

The three economists who will participate 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.

Also advising the committee about the tax study will be Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

“(Black) is not an economist, but he is an expert on school equity and school funding,” Devine said. “We thought, as we elevate this conversation, we certainly need to have someone with his expertise that could help us make certain considerations that are economics based, but also equity based, as it relates to our schools and the way they are funded and taxed.”

Gunnlaugsson’s study suggested that, in order for Columbia to become more competitive with places like Greenville and Charleston, the city, Richland County and Richland County’s school districts need to work collaboratively to:

Reduce commercial property tax rates,

Lobby the state government to overhaul part of its tax code,

Combine city and county services that are overlapping, and

Develop a “cooperative financial approach” between the county’s school systems, among other steps.

There will be meetings with the three economists and Black in the coming weeks, and Devine said she hopes there will be a recommendation to the full City Council about the formation of a tax study committee within a month.

Duvall said he thinks having the additional economists and Black look at the tax issues will be helpful in setting the table for addressing the problem.

“I hope that all four of them will bring their own perspective to the study and have some suggestions as to how a committee that we want to form should proceed,” Duvall told The State. “What actions do they think we can take to make us more competitive in our (tax) rates?”