Walker: Take a closer look at Charleston’s budget priorities

Walker is the chef at Xiao Bao Biscuit | Provided

The past year has left me and most of the people I know feeling upside down. Author Yuval Noah Harari wrote, in his latest book, “If you feel overwhelmed and confused by the global predicament, you are on the right track.” But from adversity comes opportunity. And I have had to remind myself that where we spend our money is a concrete expression of what we prioritize as a community. Well, Charleston is in the midst of deciding its 2021 budget but also its 10-year comprehensive plan. So we must ask ourselves, are we ok with the priorities of the status quo?  

If we’re spending $12 million on a forensic lab off Bees Ferry Road, but only $165,000 on our city’s youth program, does that reflect our true priorities? And when the city’s budget for new LED lights at Volvo Car Stadium is roughly equivalent to its $3 million Urban and Community budget, then I’d argue our priorities need shifting. 

We’re a city of contradictions, so there’s reason for both hope and skepticism. Charleston has been listed No. 1 small city by Conde Nast at the same time as it was named “the worst place in the United States to launch a small business.”  In June, the city created a Special Commission on Equity, Inclusion and Racial Conciliation to examine our own policies, practices and budget. Many are optimistic, while others like activist Tamika Gadsden say we “know what the issues are here in Charleston, it’s time for us to address them.” Currently there’s no funding set aside to implement any recommendations that may come from their work, so there’s reason to be skeptical. Where will the money come from? 

The budget here is the key. Groups like Black Lives Matter and the American Civil Liberties Union have focused largely on the police budget which accounts for 20% of the city’s overall spending — roughly $50 million. The groups are asking for a line-item budget to be released for an outside audit that can examine and provide analysis at no cost. A quick review of past budgets shows the police department, for just one example, spending $1.6 million each year on new cars alone. Yet when I ride my skateboard through one particular parking garage downtown, dozens of police vehicles sit parked for months on end. This is just one tiny example that scratches the surface. Yes, there’s a lot to focus on with policing, but it’s important to extend our focus to the budget as a whole. This will be critical for the new commission’s work.

As an average citizen, the more I learn about the budget, the more questions I have. And I think that’s part of the problem. In 2017, city of Charleston voters approved a $20 million bond referendum to fund affordable housing. This year, with higher assessments already boosting tax bills, there’s another measure on the November ballot to raise Charleston County property taxes to raise more money for affordable housing. There is no way to determine if the $20 million is being spent effectively, so where’s the accountability? The city publishes its annual budget (a 522-page PDF in 2020), but the public is still mostly in the dark. Is workforce housing where the developers set the prices actually affordable? What are the occupancy rates currently? We don’t know. We need better systems for feedback and transparency. 

Obviously, the challenges are real. In the 2020 budget, Charleston calls itself “the most livable city in the world that responds creatively to change.” Let’s use our voices to say, “Prove it.” and harness the moment to create something extraordinary. If progress is truly driven by “delusional optimism of some people” as Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman said, then 2020 is the year to be those people.

Joshua Walker is the chef/owner of Xiao Bao Biscuit and Tu in Charleston.

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