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County Council April 14

New members make stand on diversity
Sales tax administration in limbo Warwick Jones, standing in for Shawn Keller who is on military duty in Iraq

The matter before the Finance Committee of Council was the proposed structure of the administration of the new half-cent sales tax. However, the issue clearly became race. The discussion of the proposal was polite in form, but it grew intense in nature. Discussion ended when a vote was taken on " calling the question". Effectively, this meant that no agreement was made on the nature of the administration.

As Mr. Windam, the County Administrator reminded the meeting, the sales tax would begin to be collected within a few weeks. The County had little in place to handle the administration. He and others had worked on it and he placed his proposal before the Council. His plan called for the hiring of 5 persons to handle the extra load on the Council staff. And because of the importance of the tax, its administration would be integrated with the working of the Council - at least as far as Roads program was concerned. Mr. Windham proposed that the two senior executives be moved to the new positions that would allow them to oversee spending from both the sales tax proceeds and from other sources such as the State. He further proposed that two people be hired to replace them.

Nobody had strong objection to the structure though there were questions about the need for a management company to be involved. It was Council member Pryor's question that led the discussion into racial matters, and down a path he subsequently felt uncomfortable walking. He asked for a job description of the positions and some of idea of salaries. This led to a question from Council member Darby as to diversity of employment, and wages generally. And from there it just went on and on.

At the time the discussion was terminated, there were two camps - Council members Darby, Pryor, Scott, Inabinett and Bostic in one, and Council members Stavrinakis, Fava and Wallace in the other. The first group wanted closure in ensuring diversity in hiring and in particular for these new positions created by the sales tax increase. Council member Scott opined that since he joined Council 6 years ago, there had not been much increase in diversity in hiring. Now was a good time to address the issue.

The other camp was actually not in opposition. It argued that hiring practices were in place and that if changes were required, then it should be raised as a separate issue. This was purely a matter of administration and it was becoming urgent. Council member Bostic, in a sense, belonged in this camp but he said that the racial questions were so divisive of Council that he would rather vote against the measure than approve it just in the cause of greater harmony.

We are not sure of the mechanism of how the discussion was ended, but Chairman Stavrinakis was clearly disturbed at the course of events and did much to keep the discussion on track. He used his best logic but it could not overcome emotion.

So what happens next? Almost certainly there will be some backroom discussion and the matter will be resuscitated. It has to be, as the matter is too important to let fester. Whether the diversity issue will be fully addressed we cannot be sure. But Council has again been put on notice that new members have strong views and will stand up for what they believe is right.

Controversial residential and commercial development approved
Chairman Stavrinakis was on the loosing side of another discussion during the evening and we don't understand how he was so devoid of friends when it came to the vote. At issue was an amended Planned Development (PUD) on Highway 17 and Bonanza Road. The PUD that Hipp Properties originally proposed entailed a golf course and restaurant but it now seeks to substitute a housing and commercial development. Despite the fact that the Planning Commission and Council staff voted against approval, despite the massive turnout at the Public Hearing that spoke passionately against this and the adjacent project proposed by Centex, Council member Bostic described it well thought and creditable. Chairman Stavrinakis thought the opposite and described it in condemning terms as he did in the public hearing - this high-density development was in an area where infrastructure was already overwhelmed. The housing density was well above that proposed in the County's Comprehensive Plan, building height limits were to be exceeded, and there was little left for green space. What was the developer giving back to the community? ( See April 6 comment) As he reminded Council, zoning was for a purpose and PUDs were a device to allow developers some flexibility in design because of the rigidity that was imposed by zoning ordinances. This proposal made a mockery of zoning.

Council member Darby suggested that there was a need for affordable housing and because of the high density, the housing proposed would fall into this category. We would ask is it really affordable housing or just low cost? Mr. Hipp said he thought the housing units would be priced between $150,000 and $200,000. From our experience, this makes them affordable to people only at or above the median income.

Those 40 or so folk that turned up for the public hearing are going to mightily disappointed as the decision. Strange, Council seemed so sympathetic to their pleas at the time. And indeed Centex has pulled its proposal presumably to address some of the issues the public raised. What changed the Council's views?

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