From cars to cookies: History of A-Tax


During December many gifts change hands, from cookies to cars and everything in between. Town Council helps distribute gifts too - in the form of Accommodations Tax grants.

Although we vote on the amounts and recipients, the funds are somewhat of a gift to Hilton Head Island, sent from visitors who've spent at least a night and up to 90 days in rental accommodations here. This tax has a unique history, great for a December tale.

As with most taxes, the initial idea, introduced in the mid-1970s, was unpopular. As written, the revenues were to return to South Carolina's general fund and reduce property taxes. It was doomed - perhaps rightfully so.

Enter Harriet Keyserling, the first woman to represent Beaufort County in the South Carolina Legislature. She was a champion for the arts, women's issues and the environment. In addition, she soon became a force to be reckoned with, promoting effective governance, including her opposition to filibustering.

In her 1998 book, "Against the Tide: One Woman's Political Struggle," she recounts her work to add arts and cultural activities to the floundering accommodations tax bill. She hoped to turn the tide of opposition into support for a much-needed source of revenue for tourist-infused municipalities like ours.

Most of these municipalities were rich in artistic, historic and cultural assets. Rep. Keyserling successfully worked to create proponents from opponents.

Among those opponents turned advocates were prominent Hilton Head Islanders: John Curry, then chairman of the Chamber of Commerce; John David Rose, a partner with a public relations firm; and Angus Cotton, then general manager of the former Hilton Head Marriott. They decided to join with Rep. Keyserling to formulate an accommodations tax to benefit artistic, historical and cultural activities and facilities, as well as tourism.

There was opposition outside and inside the tourism hot-spots. It was agreed that inside the tourist areas, costs to serve visitors continued to increase beyond the purses of the property tax payers supporting them.

However, at that time, only 16 of South Carolina's 46 counties had significant tourism activity. The remaining 30 counties claimed that their citizens would suffer by having to pay the tax when visiting the popular coastal areas.

To enlist their support, a "Robin Hood" amendment was introduced that required the areas rich in tourism to give back to those not otherwise benefiting from the tax. This cooperation created the final agreement for the source of funds to support the tourism industry's demands on infrastructure.

The bill finally passed in 1983, with a formula for disbursement and a requirement for a locally appointed advisory committee to oversee and recommend the allocation of this revenue.

Town Council will vote this month to distribute more than $4 million of ATAX funds to about 30 organizations for programs, activities and infrastructure to provide amenities to those who use our accommodations.

The truth is, our citizens also benefit. From cookies to cars, it's quite likely that a celebration you attend on the island is sponsored by ATAX.

David Bennett is the mayor of the Town of Hilton Head Island. Visit to sign up for the mayor's email.

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