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County Council, March 2

Charitable Contributions debated again
Mark Clark extension back on agenda for March 22
Warwick Jones

We thought the issue was closed. It had been well discussed by Council, sometimes heatedly, at a number of meetings last year. But Council member Thurmond, new to Council this year, was not happy about the County’s policy of distributing funds to “Outside Agencies”. In fiscal 2007, the County had budgeted for distributions of about $315,000. He stated that it was not right for the Council to be giving away the public’s money. He had no issue with any of the recipients or with charitable giving. But it was not the County’s job to support charities. He noted that in 2004, the private sector gave $24 billion to charities. Did Government need to get into the business of giving as well, he inferred? He added that the County was presently in a tight financial position and may need to raise millage rates. How could we raise rates and continue to give away taxpayers money?

Council members Schweers and Bostic offer support
The Council member was supported by Council members Schweers and Bostic. It would be hard to end the program so maybe it should be phased out, suggested Council member Schweers. Council member Bostic said that the handouts make us “feel good” but he questioned the net benefit. Many citizens were struggling to pay their property taxes and suffered hardship. It is hard to take their money and give it to others.

Council member Darby first to defend practice
Not surprisingly, other Council members rose to defend the practice and some with irritation, considering the fullness and conclusion of the debate last year. Council member Darby wanted to call the question but others thought it would be better to have the discussion regardless. The Council member noted the plight of the poor and disabled who were served by the charities. He said that the funds received from the County were vital for many of these charities and activities such as the Special Olympics and Citizens Patrol against Drugs.

Council member Condon called it a tough decision with which she was still struggling. She was not happy with the procedure and had some issues with some of the charities which received funds. She called for a new system and one to determine priorities.

This irked Council member Darby who reminded her that the County did indeed introduce a new system last year. She called for it and contributed much to it. So why was she seeking to question it?

Chairman calls for civility
Chairman Scott sensing a rapidly rising temperature in the debate called for civility which pleasingly was maintained for the rest of the session. But it did not disguise the seriousness of the protagonists.

All other members support present system
All the Council members contributed to the discussion with Council members Pryor and Inabinett strongly in favor of the present system. Council member Pryor noted that government was always making decisions on spending and distributions. Was there that much difference in deciding to spend public monies on greenbelts say that giving to charities? Council member McKeown stood opposite his Republican fellow members. He wondered out loud whether the contributions to the charities actually save the County money. He noted that the job undertaken by the Crisis Ministries, looking after the homeless, was usually fully funded by government in other counties. But in Charleston, the Ministries was largely funded by private sources. It was doing a good job and he might have added why rock the boat?

Council member Darby noted, as he did last year, that contributions to Outside Agencies had been made for many years but was questioned for the first time in the wake of single member districts. Why, he asked with the strong inference that it was race related? He also noted the $50,000 contribution to the Chamber of Commerce (hardly a charity) in a past year and the silence of Council. Council member Schweers noted that mistakes were made in the past but they did not justify the continuation.

At the final vote, only Council members Thurmond, Schweers and Bostic were for a change in the practice.

Issue is likely to continue
Are we done with the discussion? Probably not. The budget sessions are soon to begin and if there is a need for a millage rate increase, Council member Thurmond seems very likely to remind Council of the Outside Agency allocations. Council member Condon, although she voted for the continuation, is clearly unhappy with the looseness of the policy and would like to tighten up “priorities”. At the same time, questions must be raised as to the cost of the process. The measures introduced last year have made the application process far more complex. It may well deter some applicants. And one can’t forget the larger amount of time that staff spends on culling applications. However, judging from yesterday’s debate, although more discussions are probable, a change in the voting positions is not.

Clean report by Internal Auditor – but some minor issues in Procurement
It has been the practice for the County’s internal auditor to make quarterly reports to the Audit Committee. Pleasingly, there have been very few instances of problems and those reported were minor, such as an incident relating to cash collection at a Parking Garage in the previous quarter. The Auditor’s gave a clean report for a number of departments audited in the latest quarter but did make some comments in relation to the Procurement Department – Contracts

The selection of certain contracts is determined by an evaluation committee. The evaluation process awards points for certain criteria. The auditor found that the calculations were made incorrectly in the case of three awards. In two of these, recalculation would not have made a difference to the winner. But in one, it did. The auditor recommended a process to ensure that this did not happen again which the Department has accepted. The contract has also been put out for re-bidding.

The auditor also noticed that in the case of special bids – sole bidder, split bids etc – there was insufficient information on file to explain the special circumstances. Also in 10 contracts, there was no record of a current insurance certificate. Evidence of insurance is needed to protect the County in case of losses. The Auditor made recommendation to remedy the problems and they were accepted by management.

Mark Clark back on the agenda
The issue of extending the Mark Clark was supposed to be on yesterday’s agenda. But it was removed, presumably because Council could see no reason for further public discussion. It was argued that there had been many opportunities for the public to voice its opinion. Essentially it was a done deal.

It seems that most of the opponents of the extension, mainly trying to protect Johns Island, have a different view. The phone calls and agitation caused the issue to be put on Council’s agenda for the March 22 meeting.

Will their cries make a difference? We doubt it. We are critical of the process that approved the extension of the Expressway. Council effectively decided on its construction without a full review. Approval was sought and obtained for funding from the State Infrastructure Bank before all the public views were obtained. Council, or at least some members, would argue that circumstances dictated the course it took. If an application had not been made for Bank funding at the time, the County would have missed out and the expressway’s construction deferred for years.

Our reading is that the community is evenly divided for and against the extension with most of those for it, living north of the proposed extension, and those against, on or near Johns Island. We expect a lot of heat at the meeting but no change in policy.

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