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County Council May 11

Sympathy, but no extra cash for CARTA
Non-profits may go empty handed
Warwick Jones

There were three important issues before the Finance Committee yesterday evening - CARTA's request for extra financing from sales tax funds, Outside Agency distributions, and proposed major changes to zoning regulations. The Committee may have had teary eyes in dealing with CARTA' woes but it was hard nosed in its decision - no extra funding. And the same applied to Outside Agencies - there may be no funding for any of the non-profits but if there is, qualifications may be tightened. And as for the new planning regulations, they were adopted with the exception of those that were contentious. Consideration of these was deferred.

CARTA is only issue in FY 2007 sales tax budget
As part of the overall Fiscal 2007 budget process, the Finance Committee had the proposed 2007 Sales Tax Budget before it. None of the items in the budget were contentious except relating to Transportation - essentially CARTA. To recapitulate, sales tax funds are to be split 17% for Greenbelts, 65% for Transportation and 18% for CARTA. Although the split for CARTA was not specifically stated in the 2004 referendum, this was the percentage mentioned in the previous and failed referendum documents and, arguably, assumed by the public and County Council members in the 2004 referendum.

Seeks $2.3 million above entitlement
Staff has projected sales tax proceeds for fiscal 2007 at $38.56 million. If the 18% were applied, this would mean that CARTA is entitled to $6.94 million. It was asking for $9.2 million, about 49% of its proposed 2007 budget of $18.7 million. It sought the extra amount to cover debt service and to finance an extension of services. To complicate the issue, there was also a request from the rural transit authority, for $331,000. This was the first request made of the County and it logically fell under Transportation and eligible for Sales tax funding but within the 18% limit.

There was little new that was added to the argument that has been brewing now for some weeks since CARTA revealed its budget plans. It needed the extra money - $2.3 million - to cover debt service of roughly $1.1 million and expansion plans. The debt service came about from the need to borrow funds to repay the County and municipalities that had financed it in the immediate years after the overturned 2002 referendum. Its case was strengthened in recent weeks when the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) voted to recommend that sales tax proceeds be used take over all of CARTA's debt servicing. Mr. Howard Chapman, the executive director of CARTA told the Committee that $5.7 million of debt was still outstanding.

Some degree of sympathy by all members for plight
All council members displayed some degree of sympathy for CARTA's plight with Council member Pryor indicating that he would support its request. But others noted that by meeting CARTA's request, roads and greenbelts would suffer from the diversion of funds to which they are entitled. Council member Scott was opposed to the request and argued strongly that despite comments to the contrary, the 18% allocation of funds from the sales tax was appropriate. The percentage was rolled up and totaled under transportation in the referendum language. But this was done for political reasons. It was not because of a desire to increase the percentage beyond 18%.

Chairman Stavrinakis very critical
It was the comments of Chairman Stavrinakis that surprised us most. He said that he was not satisfied with CARTA or its board, nor was he comfortable in going to voters and explaining why Council had raised the allocation. He noted that CARTA received an allocation beyond 18% last year. He said that CARTA needed to meet with staff and go over the numbers in projections. If Staff had confidence in the projections, he would be more inclined to support the request. He asked Staff to comment and Mr. Keith Bustraan, Chief Deputy Administrator said " there are some optimistic assumptions in the plans of CARTA." Our reading is that Chairman Stavrinakis has little confidence that CARTA will fall within the 18% limitation in future.

Some palliatives for CARTA
Council members Scott and Fava attempted to find some palliatives. Council member Scott suggested there might be a way for the County to buy the Leeds facility as a way to fund the debt. Council member Fava suggested that Council look into using Accommodation tax funding. After all, the DASH system was used to carry tourists.

Council voted to allocate only $7 million to Transit and to revisit the CARTA issue in 6 months time. How the $7 million is devided between CARTA and rural transit was not decided.

The issue will come up for a final vote of Council on Tuesday night. Council member Darby was not at yesterday's meeting but we doubt that his presence on Tuesday will mean a change in the outcome. We note that Mayor Riley, the acknowledged mentor of Chairman Stavrinakis is strongly supporting CARTA's request. But we think that given Council's strong collective opinion yesterday, the voting on Tuesday will be little different, even if there were strong lobbying.

Charities to go begging?
Budgeting this year has been tight as Council struggles to keep millage rates steady. As result, there was nothing left in the 2007 Budget for Outside Agencies, a euphemism for the hand-out to charities and others each year by Council. We wrote on the public hearing on Outside Agencies on April 18 and noted that about $1.6 million was requested. It is possible that all applicants will be disappointed with nothing distributed. Last year, Council distributed $376,000 with the pot split into 9 equal parts for distribution by each Council member. (See posting County Council May 24, 2005)

Delaying COLA and Compensation adjustments could provide funds
Council member Fava did some arithmetic in an attempt to find cash for those items without funding in the budget. He could find about $360,000 for Outside Agencies by delaying Cost of Living increases for County employees and by delaying implementation of the Compensation Study. This precipitated some strong words from Council member Bostic who was totally opposed to holding back on raises that employees were entitled to. And Council generally regarded his reaction sympathetically. Council member Bostic suggested that Council hand nothing to the Outside Agencies this year. It should take the opportunity to consider its policy and more closely define those that qualify for funding for the following year.

Chairman Stavrinakis was not happy with the suggestion and felt an obligation to find some funding in Fiscal 2007. After all, a public hearing had been called and a lot of folk had made the effort to appear before Council. However, he was sympathetic to a more restrictive list of recipients. Council member Condon had proposed that recipients should be only non-profits that fell under the 501-3c categoriy.

Chairman Stavrinakis criticized some of the allocations made last year and threatened to comment on those he disapproved this year. Council member Pryor took him to task on his silence last year. We note that there were 4 new council members last year. As they were not properly briefed on how the funds were to be distributed, a number of neighborhood associations and others that normally would not be considered received allocations. Council member Scott was not opposed to a more restrictive distribution but to implement the restrictions for Fiscal 2007 may be too harsh. Council members may have already decided on recipients. Council member Fava also suggested that the qualifications of recipients of the Accommodation tax proceeds also be tightened.

A special meeting of the Finance Committee has been called for Tuesday evening to take up the issue again.

Heritage Zone and Goat Island changes deferred
Public hearings were held last month on proposed changes to the County's Zoning and Land Development regulations. There were 8 pages of changes proposed by Staff and for consideration by the Committee. All were accepted except the very contentious which were deferred. They were Heritage Zones that dealt with property in rural areas held by families for 50 years or more, Goat Island and the Mount Pleasant Commercial Corridor. The Heritage Zone issue was contentious, as it would allow high-density zoning in rural areas. Conservation groups and others opposed it. And indeed, there is an issue as to whether it is legal. Goat Island was contentious because of the familiar confrontation of residents wishing to preserve the status quo, and developers who did not. And as for the Mount Pleasant Commercial Corridor, Staff has not got round to finalizing plans.
Your Comments:

CARTA's books need to be open for review by any resident of Charleston County. It's only fair - they're financed in part by our tax dollars, so why shouldn't we see where our money is going? Especially when they're asking County Council for more dough.

Posted by: Kit Peters at May 13, 2006 07:55 PM

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