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Columbia mulls waiving some business fees for flood victims

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By Chris Cox
Published Nov. 3, 2015

Frank Knapp was in Lowe’s last week when he found himself in a conversation with a salesman. The S.C. Small Business Chamber of Commerce president and CEO listened intently as the employee recounted all the customers coming in after October’s historic flooding.

These people were preparing to tear up floors in homes and businesses with their own money, after FEMA officials informed them they didn’t qualify for federal assistance. The flood damage they suffered was not significant enough, the employee recalled them saying.

“It’s not that we don’t appreciate FEMA and the money they’re giving to residents,” Knapp said. “Good for them, I’m glad they’re able to help people who are really experiencing tens of thousands of dollars in damage. But there are people experiencing $5,000 in damage who aren’t getting a penny.”

The city of Columbia aims to change that. On Monday night, City Council members voted unanimously on a first reading to waive building-permit fees for half a year and business license fees for three months for those affected. The ordinance would also provide some relief for owners trying to abide by strict building codes.

“We’re taking some extraordinary steps here but this was an extraordinary disaster,” Mayor Steve Benjamin said, “and, while the issues may be complex issues, our goal is simple: to do everything we can to help folks not just rebuild, but to truly recover and to do so as quickly and effectively as possible.”

According to the city of Columbia’s fee schedule, a project between $1 and $5,000 requires a $50 fee. Anything between $5,001 and $100,000 is $40 for the first $5,000 plus an additional $9 for every $1,000.

Columbia spokesman Michael Wukela said the waiving of these fees would not impact the city’s bottom line.

A FEMA representative encouraged council to wait until an exact number of affected properties is known before adopting the proposal, and a Carolina Flood Solutions consultant said the ordinance could hurt some property owners.

Council can still change the language of the ordinance before giving its scheduled final approval on Nov. 10.

“We’ve got more work to do, that’s certain,” Benjamin said. “But Monday night we took some important first steps in laying the groundwork for a smarter, stronger and more resilient Columbia.”

Knapp understands the concerns. But the need to help others in need should outweigh those hesitations, he said.

“This is about saving money for the people who have been hurt in this process,” Knapp said. “If it’s only hundred or a thousand people, what’s the harm of the city making this benevolent gesture?”

Reach Chris Cox at 803-726-7545 or on Twitter @chrisbcox.

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