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City Council, December 12

Mayor and Council get pay boost
More funds for Aquarium; the Budget; and Longborough.
Marc Knapp

It may not have been the most important item on last night's agenda, but it was probably of the most interest. Council voted a large increase in the salary of the Mayor, and an even larger percentage increase for themselves. Beginning January 1, 2008, the Mayor's salary will be $149,000 a year, up 19% from its present level of $125,200. The increase for Council members will be much larger in percentage terms, up 36% to $15,000 from $11,000 presently.

Recommendation of special committee
The change follows recommendation by the Mayor and City Council Compensation Study Committee. The Committee noted that the Mayor was poorly paid relative to comparable positions in other Counties and made the recommendation even though the Mayor was not seeking a substantial increase in his remuneration. The Committee also recommended that the new salary be adjusted upwards each year after 2008 by 3% to represent Cost of Living Increases.

Even bigger raises for Council suggested
Some members of the Committee suggested even larger increases for Council members, perhaps as much as $20,000. The suggestion was prompted by the amount of time spent on Council affairs. The position of a Council member was not full time but it was very demanding. The Committee also noted that there had been some issues over travel expenses with Council members spending of $5000 to $6000 a year. The issue had been resolved with a limit now of 4 out-of-town overnight trips a year. According to the minutes of a Committee meeting, the law states that the Committee can make recommendations on Council members' remuneration only for two year periods. This presumably reflects the fact that half of Council comes up for election every 2 years.

We have no argument with the thrust of the Committee's arguments. The Mayor should be paid a fair salary and many Council members do work long hours. But considering the lack of preparedness for some Council meetings, we don't believe all Council members work long hours. We also agree that salary or remuneration is not/ should not be the motivation of Council members or the Mayor. But we do think the citizens deserve to know the changes planned and wonder why the Post & Courier makes no mention.

And Council member Bleeker, please.. maybe you really believe Mayor Riley deserves a salary of near $163,000 but your suggestion looked cringing and was probably the reason that it found no support on Council.

For the record, Mayor Riley recused himself during the deliberations on his salary.

We, but not Council, question spending of Accommodation Fee
The Public Hearing on the disbursement of the funds raised in 2007 from the 1% accommodation fee drew one speaker last night - my partner Warwick Jones. He noted that the Accommodation Fee funds were designed to help the tourist industry. He noted that historic houses and districts were the biggest draw of tourists to Charleston. But none of the $3.6 million that was budgeted to be received was directed to purposes directly allied with the Historic Districts. But there was a $375,000 allocation to the Aquarium Bond (transfer to Marine Science Museum) whatever that all might mean. Tourists may visit the Aquarium but studies have shown that its draw is minimal, if not minuscule, as the primary motivation for tourist visits. There was also an allocation for the restoration of CIty Hall. City Hall needed restoration but this is tourist related?

Two budgets
For the record, the Ordinance relating to the Accommodations Fee states there will be two sets of expenditures. One will relate to capital improvements beneficial to the tourism industry and the other, to meet the cost of operational expenses beneficial to the tourist industry. The City has allocated $1.81 million to each of the categories.

The split of the capital improvements is as follows
Energy Performance Contract (transfer to Energy Performance Fund) $250,000
Governors Park Complex (transfer to Governors Park Fund) $300,000
Aquarium Bond (transfer to Marine Science Museum Fund) $375,000
Renovation of City Hall (transfer to Capital Improvement Fund) $385,000
Memminger Auditorium Renovation $500,000
Total $1.81 million

The other category, also $1.81 million, comprises “operational costs including the salaries of police officers, parking enforcement personnel and other tourism related operating expenses�.

No discussion by Council
We would like to provide more details of the proposed spending but as is becoming more common now over items before City Council, there was no discussion. Not a whisper! We believe the Memminger Auditorium spending is allied with Spoleto's plan to use the structure but apart from City Hall we know nothing about the other items.

Citizens would like to see some bang for their buck now Council members have voted for a sizable increase in remuneration. So please, can we have reasonable inquiry over issues? Continued acquiescence to the Mayor's desires does not merit a pay increase.

Public hearing on Budget draws only one speaker
A Public Hearing was also held on the 2007 budget and drew again only one speaker, my partner. He asked who determined the recipients of the $500,000 or so, that was distributed to Assistance Programs. He noted that the County Council had come under criticism for some of its distributions to so called charities and had moved to define a policy for grants with a strict definition of eligible recipients. He suggested that the City do the same and that it define an application process like the County. The Mayor and CFO Steve Bedard rose quickly, (and uncharacteristically) in response to tell him that an application was indeed necessary and that the County had drawn on the City in designing its own Application Form.

Mr. Jones apologized for the gap in his knowledge but he could have added that it was new to a lot of people. I have never heard of an application process for handouts by the City. But like he said, it would be nice to know who determines the allocations. There has never been a discussion amongst Council members for as long as I have been attending Council, which are more years than I care to remember.

Little more was added to the budget discussion over that of the previous meeting. There were some changes that related to the form of accounting, but no change in net numbers. Council member Fishburne rose to question the Mayor, as did I at the last meeting, about the Mayor's claim that taxes had fallen. Millage rates had indeed fallen but property values had risen. This combination pushed taxes higher for just about everybody. So the Mayor's claim was false in a real sense.

Affordable Housing at Longborough? Not likely says Councilmember Lewis
Council approved an extension of loan commitment with the Charleston Housing Authority amounting to $4.2 million. Hopefully it would not be used, the Mayor said, but the City may need it to acquire houses that the Beach Company had committed to build for "affordable housing"?.

The Beach Company plans construction beginning is spring 2007 and hopes to complete 42 units by the end of the year and fulfill its commitment to the City. The company had previously indicated that it would build 50 units but presumably because the average size of the new units will be larger, the commitment was reduced. Under the agreement, the units will be available at a cost to the City of $125 a sq. ft. The units will run between 900 and 1200 sq. ft. in size, and will be sold at the equivalent of $125 a sq ft. The targeted buyers will be earning between 50% and 120% of the family median income.

Council member Lewis, as he has in the past, questioned whether the units would indeed be affordable to low income households. Staff indicated that the families at the higher end of the income range were likely to be the buyers. Council member Gallant suggested that the displaced and original occupiers of properties at the Longborough site be first offered the units. There was general agreement, but we wonder whether it will make a difference. The original occupiers have dispersed and we suspect many of those who might be inclined to move back will find the units unaffordable as Council member Lewis suggested.

Councilmember Fishburne who has often noted the lack of "affordable housing" in the City, asked whether private developers could do a better job than non-profits or the City in providing "affordable housing". He noted that Longborough had been on the books for some years and only next year would units be available. He cited a project in which he was involved where the cost of housing had been less than $125 a sq ft.

Knapp gets applause
For the record, I received unanimous applause from Council last night. I simply complimented it on the seeming ubiquitous presence of police in West Ashley and other areas where previously I had seen none. So it was the first complement I had paid the Council since .. well for some time. Surely they weren'tt sending me up?

We also note that there was no applause from Council member Tinkler. He was absent last night. In fact he has been absent from quite a few meetings over the recent past,

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