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City Council Meeting - Dec 7

Council OK's 6.3% budget increase
Marc Knapp who covers City Council

Council approved the $116.1million budget for fiscal 2005 with relatively little debate about the projected expenditures. The budgeted amount represents a 6.3% increase over the previous year and a real increase of about 4% after allowing for inflation of about 2%. Much of the discussion about the budget took place in the meeting of the Ways and Mean Committee. Mr. Steve Bedard, the City's CFO, was questioned frequently about items in the budget, particularly by Council members George and Fishburne. But there was nothing revealed that we would describe as contentious. However, the discussion in Council did give rise to some other issues, and some which took on very heated tones.

Nobody on Council seemed to be concerned about the real increase in spending for the year and it was left to your correspondent to question as to why the City does not attempt to rein in spending. This inspired Council member Shirley who seemed to agree that a more aggressive approach should have been made to setting the budget. In anticipation of the obvious answer, he whimsically asked whether department heads had been asked if they needed the allocations that were made.

No increase in property taxes
The increased budget is being achieved without any property tax increase, at least in millage. The rate will remain steady at 96.8, or 69.1 after applying Local Option Sales Tax credit. Much of the increase in revenue budgeted for the year will come from higher user fees and higher parking charges at City garages. However, it seems that development fees now being levelled on new construction will pass to the capital budget rather than through the general fund. Some of the higher costs to be incurred relate to hiring - particularly fireman and police. Twelve extra firemen were hired at the end of the previous fiscal year and will add $490,000 to the budget in a full year. Five police officers are to be added to staff this year and the cost is projected at $225,000 for a full year. The City also planned to add personnel for building inspections, data processing, and design and development.

The City also plans to borrow $9.7 million to finance some capital projects. The more important are fire stations and the renovation of City Hall.

Was there increased tension?
We may be wrong, but last night we observed greater tension amongst some of the members of the council. Council members Campbell and George have been frequent critics of the Mayor and some of his policies. That they continue to be so is no surprise. But Council members Lewis and Gilliard were noticeably more aggressive in their questioning. Councilmember Lewis was hostile when he was asking about personnel numbers and in particular police numbers. He asked why it was that he was never able to get personnel numbers for the City. Mr. Bedard said that the computer software that the City purchased did not lend itself to providing this data along with the budget figures. But the information could be obtained through other means. He said it would cost some hundreds of thousands of dollars to change the software to add the personnel figures. Council member Lewis went on to ask what had happened to all these extra police men that had been hired over the years? His discussions with police indicated that there was consistent under-manning and shortages. He strongly suggested that Chief Reuben Greenberg should come to Council meetings to answer questions that were posed relating to police matters. The police issue was later take up by Council member Campbell who also complained of the shortage of police patrolling the East Side.

Council member Lewis, long an advocate of affordable housing, decried the fact that the loan that was made to Charleston Place near 20 years ago remained unpaid and would not be repaid until the Hotel achieved a certain level of profitability. Would it even be repaid for there was a crying need for financing of worthy projects in the City? The mayor responded that although the loan was made by the City (through the LDC); it had actually just been the conduit of these funds from HUD. And yes, he was sure that the loan would be repaid.

Who is running the City?
And the Mayor later reassured Council member Gilliard that he continues to run the City. The council member asked questions that we have been hearing from other folk connected with the City. He asked rhetorically as to why Department heads when he questioned them responded with "Ask Mr. Bedard". He followed this question with a statement that department heads need to be able to exercise authority and initiative. If they could not, there was something very wrong. The council member did not name the department heads to whom he was referring, nor did he mention his questions. But we suspect that one of the heads was Pat Crawford, the head of Housing and Communityl Development. She recently announced her retirement but the announcement followed some major restructuring of responsibilities and reporting.

The $10 million bond issue for affordable housing surfaces
At last there was some news about the $10 million issue that was approved by voters some years ago. Some of us have been wondering for some time as to what had happened to it. Last night Council member Fishburne wondered out loud. The Mayor responded that the some exciting plans for housing were being developed by the City and which would be financed by the proceeds of the bond issue. The $10 million issue would be made at the same time of the proposed $9.7 million issue referred to in the 2005 budget. He said there would be economies in making both issues at the same time. The housing that would be financed by the bond issue had to be income generating to be able to pay interest and amortize the bond. No Council member asked the obvious question as to why after so many years, was the Mayor only now moving on the bond issue? If the City had identified a need some years ago and obtained approval through a referendum, it seems rather cynical, perhaps callous, to sit and do nothing for so long. If there was such a need for these funds, why has the city waited so long to act?

Accommodations tax budget also approved
The Ways and Means Committee also discussed the 2005 budget of the Accommodations Tax Fund. (These funds come from Hospitality tax of 2% levied by the City) The budget for 2005 was projected at $2.60 million, up slightly from the $2.55 million amended 2004 budget. As is usual, the Visitors Center gets the biggest cut of the funds, projected at $772,000 and the VRTC Bond, the second biggest cut of $348,185 for interest and principal. "Arts Grants in aid" received a total of $1.046 million. In this category, the Charleston Museum receives the largest grant of $178,000, the same amount as in 2004. Other beneficiaries were Spoleto Festival, $171,000, up $21,000, Christmas in Charleston/ Farmers market $110,000, up $10,000 and the SC Aquarium $100,000, up $30,000. Council member George noted that the grant to the Aquarium was made despite the assurance of the Mayor some years ago that tax payers money would not be used to run the Aquarium.

Appeals for deferral of hearings
There were appeals from some citizens to defer a decision on the second hearing of the TIF relating to the Neck. There were also appeals for a deferral of the hearing relating to the rezoning on 396- 410 Meeting Street on the Eastside. The appeal was also joined by Council member Campbell who voiced deep concerns about the impact of the development on his district.

The Council voted to move ahead with the TIF. It was not indifference to the pleas of the citizens who were seeking more information but a public hearing had been set for December 21. Here all issues could be addressed.

The deferral of the rezoning on Meeting Street was originally approved by Council over the objection of the Mayor and some other council members including Tinkler and Bleeker. But in an unusual break with procedure, Mr. Batman Smith, the attorney for the developer spoke at the close of the meeting to say that a deferral was very detrimental to his client. A closing for the purchase of the property was scheduled before the next Council meeting and it would be compromised by the deferral. He added that the developers had many discussions with people from the East Side and City staff. He said that there had been no change from the original proposal and every body had been well informed. Council member Campbell seemed to think otherwise and felt that a hotel with 400 rooms could have a big impact on his community and it would be wrong to proceed without full discussion with his community members. And besides, he thought there were changes to the original plan. Council members George, Gilliard and Lewis agreed with him. But it was not enough and the rezoning was approved

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