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County Council, June 1

Issues with Outside Agencies and the Post & Courier
Greenbelts, bonding and the RMC
Warwick Jones

Discussion of Outside Agencies dominated last night's session of the Finance Committee. Before the discussion got underway, Council member Bostic moved that a vote should be deferred for some months, and that in the meantime Council should define a policy for contributions to Outside Agencies. This it agreed to do. But there was considerable debate before the vote was taken and it spilled into wider issues such as "single member districts", and the reporting of the Post & Courier.

Distributions long standing practice
Council members Fava and Scott indicated immediately that they supported Council member Bostic's motion. Council member Darby spoke thereafter, and although he did not oppose the motion in the final vote, he was clearly unhappy. He noted that the distribution of funds to Outside Agencies had occurred every year for some 25 years. It was not illegal, and had never been criticized before. He noted that when he became a member of Council and told that he could distribute funds, he and other new members were provided few guidelines. He could have noted his recommendations were never criticized by staff or other Council members or if they were, they never surfaced. And indeed, all Council members last year made distributions which drew no criticism by other Council members or the Post & Courier.

He also referred to the $500 allocation this year to a drug reform group and which was criticized in the Post & Courier. He reiterated his support for the legalization of the use of marijuana for alleviating suffering of the sick. He noted that his mother died of cancer, and he witnessed her pain. Marijuana could have alleviated the suffering.

Should P&C be allowed to dictate policy?
Council member Darby was trenchant in his criticism of the Post & Courier. The newspaper in recent weeks has criticized distributions to Outside Agencies. It also questioned single-member districts and the effectiveness of Council without a Chairman elected directly by citizens. Speaking to Councilmember Bostic's motion, Council member Darby asked whether Council was allowing the Post & Courier to dictate policy. He also asked Council put the distribution to Outside Agencies into perspective. In fiscal 2007, $315,000 would be distributed. This is a relatively small amount compared to other expenditures by the Council. And it had to be said against the good rendered to the community.

Where was diversity amongst editorial staff?
Long an advocate of diversity in hiring and procurement in the County, Council member Darby suggested that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. He asked where the diversity was in the editorial staff of the Post & Courier. It was of course a rhetorical question. But there are no racial minorities on the paper's editorial staff.

Council member Condon also spoke in favor of Council member Bostic's motion. She expressed concern that funds were being distributed that could be spent outside the County, and also by religious groups. She directed the speech to Council member Darby, who rose to correct an impression she created. There were distributions to religious groups the Councilmember stated. But these distributions specifically were for charitable purposes only, for the distribution of food and clothing to the needy. Churches in the community were serving the poor. He was supported by Council member Pryor who said these churches were "serving in the trenches'.

No evidence of racial tensions on Council
Council member Mc Keown has served on Council for only a few weeks and replaced Council member Wallace who retired. Council member Wallace spoke infrequently, but his comments were always very sensible. Council member McKeown seems to fit the same mold. He noted the comments in the Post & Courier that racial of tensions were besetting Council with the introduction of the single member districts. He said that he was not aware of any racial tensions. And as for single member districts and the new members, they were not blame over any issues of diversity. The new members were the messengers, they brought the issues to light.

Council member McKeown said he wanted to make sure that Council was doing the right thing and supported Council member Bostic's motion. But he also said that as well as a policy for Outside Agency distributions, one for the Accommodation tax should also be considered.

Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan adopted
The Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan was presented to the Finance Committee yesterday. The plan has been in the works now for about a year and was prepared by the consultant, Greenways Inc in conjunction with the Greenbelt Advisory Board (GAB). Meetings of the Board and comments on the Plan can be viewed on this site by accessing Greenbelt Advisory Board. There was little discussion of the contents of the Plan but heaps of praise, particularly from Council member Bostic who stated that he thought the Board was one of the most productive committees of the County.

The Chairman of the GAB responded with thanks and with some element of surprise at the volume of praise. She asked that the plan not only be adopted but that it is made an ordinance.

County Council unfairly criticized
We note that the Comprehensive Transportation Plan (CTP) was presented to the finance committee last week. Unfortunately, we could not attend the meeting. Viewers should know that we've attended nearly all of the meetings of the Transport Advisory Board since its inception. Reports on these meetings and the Comprehensive Transportation Plan (CTP) can be viewed on this site by accessing Transportation Advisory Board.

We've thought the Post & Courier in its reporting on this meeting criticized County Council unfairly. It accused Council of ignoring the recommendations of the TAB in its effort to find projects as a match to satisfy requirements for funding by the State Infrastructure Bank. The accusation is shallow, and in some respects it points to shortcomings in the TAB recommendation.

Roads were in Part 1 of the CTP
The roads that Council may build and which could be used for satisfying matching requirements, were all contained in Part 1 of the CTP, the part prepared by the Consultant. In the last month or so, the TAB completed the definition of criteria that should be used in ranking road projects for the purpose of sales tax spending. The consultant had earlier written a draft of Part 1 of the CTP and defined the projects on which the "discretionary" funds would be spent. Council had already committed to most of the projects referred to in the report and the remaining discretionary amount was probably less than $100 million in terms of present dollars. The consultant said that in defining the discretionary projects, it had attempted to use the criteria determined by the TAB. The application had been difficult and was very subjective.

TAB was divided
The TAB asked the consultant to make another attempt in ranking and to define a scoring system. The consultant presented its results to the TAB two weeks later. It was not a happy response with much disagreement amongst the TAB members. Scoring and ranking, as the consultant said, was very subjective. After the presentation, the TAB decided to move on and leave the problem of ranking and scoring to the Council and Staff. Some members of the TAB opined that the TAB was attempting to go too far. They also supported the projects defined by the Consultant in the CTP.

So was it really such an issue as the Post & Courier suggested?

Takes steps for referendum for $300 million bond issues
And on the subject of sales tax, the Finance Committee took the first step to authorize bond issues recommended in both the Comprehensive Greenbelt Plan and the Comprehensive Transportation Plan. The County is looking to hold a referendum to authorize the issue of $300 million in bonds of which about $205 million will be for transportation and $95 million for greenbelts. The amount will not be raised in one issue but the passage of the referendum will give the Council latitude to make the issues at appropriate times. The interest and amortization will be paid from sales tax proceeds. The bonds will enable Council to obtain cash in the early years for spending. If reflects the expectation that land and road construction costs will rise at a greater rate over the next 24 years or so than the interest on the bonds.
Problems at the RMC
Hiring for the RMC was also before the Committee last night - some temporary positions were being changed to full-time positions. It was not a big deal. But it reminded us of a problem that could grow in coming weeks. The on-line tax information system of the County is down - indefinitely. The system is used to retrieve tax records and to pay taxes. Apparently, a new system was being introduced and has failed to work. There was no back up and consequently there are problems. But it is even worse than this. Some folk pay taxes with a credit card. The system presently is unable to recognize credit cards. We understand it may take weeks to rectify. (We may have erred in our reporting. See Comment below. WJ, 6/5/06)
Your Comments:

Dear Mr. Jones,

As the Charleston County's Chief Information Officer, I feel obligated to respond to the www.charlestonwatch.com article called "Problems at the RMC" that pertains to the implementation of the new tax system. The information in this article did not accurately reflect the implementation of our new system.

The implementation of the new tax system was planned to take place over Memorial Day weekend. A planned downtime, or outage, of about 5 days was anticipated in order to convert 11 years of tax information to the new system. This time was chosen because conversion work on the weekend and holiday would minimize the impact of downtime during normal business hours. The online credit card payments are a part of the same system, which has the planned downtime.

The new system is now being used in all Charleston County service centers.

Should a showstopping problem be encountered during the conversion, the backup plan was to revert to the old system with the most current data. After confirmation on the stability of the new program, the Web portion giving users the ability to search for their records and pay with credit cards will be put into production. This is scheduled for later this week.

843.958.4025 - Office | 843.810.8039 - Cell
4045 Bridge View Drive
Suite B-331
North Charleston, SC 29405-7464

Posted by: Connie Berardinis at June 5, 2006 09:43 PM

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