Camera signs in place this weekend in Five Points

The city of Columbia is reminding people in Five Points to “smile cause you’re on camera.” The Hospitality Zone Task Force put up large blue signs in various spots in Five Points to let patrons — and would-be criminals — know they are being watched by law enforcement.

The new camera sign for the Five Points area. Photo by Allen Wallace.

The new camera sign for the Five Points area. Photo by Allen Wallace.

The signs, which feature large white smiley faces with the words “Cameras In Use,” are part of a large ongoing effort to curb violent crime in the entertainment district that runs along Devine and Blossom streets.

Five Points recently made headlines after University of South Carolina freshman Martha Childress was shot and severely wounded while waiting for a cab last weekend. She was not the intended target.

Increased crimes prompted the the task force to come up with some solution to help prevent illegal activity and assure business owners in the area they could continue to draw customers to the area.

The Hospitality Zone Task Force was created by the Columbia Police Department upon recommendation from City Council in 2010. It’s made up of business owners, bar owners, law enforcement officers and neighborhood and hospitality district representatives who make suggestions on how to improve public safety in high traffic business and tourism hot spots like Five Points.

At Tuesday’s council work session, John Durst, president and chief executive of the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, requested $25,000 on behalf of the HZTF from the hospitality tax fund to cover the costs of the signs as well as LED lights to be placed near the cameras.

Durst argued that the signs and lights were “tourist-friendly, less intrusive” and would offer “more and better signage around the perimeter in Five Points.”

“Good signage is clearly a deterrent,” Durst said.

Mayor Steve Benjamin quickly moved to approve the funds, but Councilwoman Tameika-Isaac Devine objected to the motion, saying she wanted to get an understanding of why Durst needed the funds.

Devine wanted to know what funding source the city was going to pull from, what the balance was in the hospitality tax fund and why council needed to move so quickly that day to approve the money.

“Two to three weeks ago we went down to the very bottom of (hospitality tax) dollars and now we have about $7,000 in the fund,” City Manager Teresa Wilson said.

The city’s Hospitality Tax Committee received $2,750,000 from hospitality tax funds for fiscal year 2013-14. After allocating dollars to various organizations and agencies in the city, the funds whittled down to $7,937.

Wilson said the city did have a reserve fund they could pull from, which Benjamin estimated to be about $900,000. The funds came from a self-imposed 10 percent withholding of hospitality tax dollars based off projected revenues.

But a representative from the city’s print shop explained to the council that without the funds, they could produce the signs without the expense of an external printing source.

That prompted questions from Devine about the need for the $25,000. Durst argued that printing the signs internally would cause the city to utilize public works funds through the print shop to cover the costs. He said using hospitality funds would free up money for public works.

The print shop representative disagreed, saying no public works funds would be used because the print shop is budgeted out of the general fund. Plus, he said, they had enough money in the budget to pay for creating the signs and did not expect much cost.

Wilson said there was already a plan to produce the signs before Durst made the request.

It appeared Durst was reacting to calls for increased public safety in Five Points after the shooting of the Childress.

He told council the signs were thought up by police officials, the public works department and representatives from Five Points to alert people that they were under surveillance.

Though the signs were up by the weekend, Durst told council the LED lights would take time to find and purchase.

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