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County Council, May 15

General Fund Budget put to bed, CARTA’s request rejected
Issues with oversight of PRC and temporary housing of jail inmates
Warwick Jones

It was a long evening. It began about four o'clock with a special meeting of the Finance Committee. It then moved to a public hearing on Contributions to Outside Agencies, and finally to a Council Meeting at 8 pm. The General Fund budget for fiscal 2008 was put to bed, though not tightly tucked in, and CARTA’s request for extra funds rejected. Spending on temporary facilities to house those unable to be placed in the crowded jail got approval, though not without debate. And Council moved to resolve as to who really was in charge of the Parks and Recreation Commission. But the issue of improving Hutt and Abram roads was left to fester.

Council had agreed at earlier meetings that there should be no change to the broad figures projected by Staff for the General Fund in fiscal 2008. Total disbursements remain steady at the earlier proposed $179.2 million. There also would not be a millage increase relating to the General Fund. However, all members were not happy about the composition of spending and Council member McKeown proposed increases in allocations to the Public Defender, Probate, Electoral Commission and the Master of Equity. The increases proposed amounted to about $200,000.

Council agreed to the proposal and as Chairman Scott remarked, it was now necessary for Staff to “scrub” the figures that find the funds by cutting back on the allocations to other entities or categories. Councilman Thurmond suggested that the money could be transferred from funds allocated to Roads. Council member Condon thought some funds could be secured by making the County Attorney a full-time staff position. Presently the Attorney is paid on an hourly basis.

CARTA’s request rejected
Little time was spent on the debate as to whether CARTA should receive the funds it was requesting from the half–cent sales tax . Council member Bostic left no doubt that he was opposed to the request and other Council members were not inclined to strongly oppose him. Council voted to maintain the allocation of sales-tax funds to Mass Transit at 18%. This meant that, CARTA was to receive $8.04 million, not the $8.4 million that it requested.

Howard Chapman, Executive Director of CARTA explained to Council that he understood that CARTA was entitled to 18% of the sales-tax funds and his request was predicated on this assumption. However, as Chairman Scott said, Mass Transit was entitled to 18% of the sales-tax funds and Mass Transit included not only CARTA but also the rural bus route authority, RTMA. The latter’s request also had to be considered. The figures in relation to CARTA and RTMA were given last week and can be seen by pressing Download file.

Trying to cope with jail overcrowding
Some of the Council members expressed surprise at the $4.5 million request to fund housing for the overflow from the County’s crowded jail. They were also surprised at the magnitude of the spending – to provide two 64 bed units - and wondered whether it really was necessary. Council member Thurmond had never heard of the need and was alarmed at a cost that seemed to be 50% above estimates.

In summary there seemed to be two issues. The first was whether the temporary housing was really necessary and second, whether it could be achieved at a lesser cost. Council member Thurmond thought that some help from the court benches in terms of sentencing could alleviate the problem of overcrowding. He also suggested that the County end its policy of taking criminals prosecuted in Federal Courts. Council member Condon also thought there were more “soft” options. Council member Thurmond suggested that the contract be again put out to bidding. Only one bidder was in the final line-up when the contract was awarded.

Most of the other Council members aired their views and all were in favor of proceeding though with varying degrees of enthusiasm. But perhaps the strongest comment came from County Administrator Canterbury who exclaimed the urgency of the situation. As Council member McKeown pointed out earlier, the capacity of the jail is about 660 persons but is now housing about 1700. This is severe overcrowding and did not take into account a possible need to house even a higher number in the near future. The Administrator noted that some of the suggestions made by Council members had been made in the past and they were uncertain and temporary solutions. The County was in a liability situation, and it had to move now.

Mr. Canterbury did not note the potential liabilities relating to the overcrowding. We understand that the County is at risk from both State and Federal authorities. The reluctance of the State to prosecute may reflect the fact that if it did, it would have to house many of the inmates now in the County jail and it does not have capacity to do so, The Federal Authorities may be in a similar position. But we understand that if the County runs foul of the Federal Authorities, the initiative to build a new jail with pass to the Federal Government and the County may have little say as to the location and size. It will also be obliged to pick of the cost which is likely to be well above that projected for the new jail now under consideration. So as Mr. Canterbury didn’t say, the liability is very real.

And as far as the cost, Mr.Canterbury said the $4.5 million is above the $3 million previously assumed. The cost was originally estimated to be higher but was revised downward to $3 million, though we did not hear when this revision was made. He noted that the figures were an estimate. Staff said that a number of firms had been invited to bid on the project. But only two made bids. One was disqualified ultimately because it failed to provide certain completed forms. Why there were so few bids is conjectural. Staff opined that there was enough time allowed in the bidding process. To reopen the bidding would add about 2 months to the timetable. And as this time the County could ill afford such an extension.

To whom is the PRC responsible?
Although little time was spent on discussion, the issue with the PRC was obviously important. The Council spent the best part of an hour in executive session and in the aftermath, Council member McKeown simply moved that the County Attorney get with the PRC to discuss the spending of sales tax funds.

What does it all mean? Perhaps the starting point is the recent decision in Richland County to give the authority to pick members of a PRC to the Legislative Delegation and take it out of the hands of the County Council. Presently Charleston County Council picks the members of the Charleston County PRC and is loathe to give up this right, or should we say, practice.

We note that the PRC was created by State legislation in 1968 and was an autonomous special purpose agency. It was authorized to acquire lands or interests therein for parks and to expend money, and manage and regulate its own affairs. As argued by some, the PRC is a creature of the State and the State is the sole entity with oversight authority.

Some members of Council don’t see it this way and feel if County tax payers are “ponying up” money through the sales tax, they should have some say as where it goes and how it is spent. This seems reasonable too.

No vote on spending to improve Hutt and Abram Roads
At the previous Finance Committee meeting, consideration was giving to spending about $2.7million to improve Hutt and Abram Roads, a legth of about 2 miles. The cost included not only road work but that of rights of way and condemnation. At the time, Council was evenly divided on the issue. Council member Thurmond did not vote last week because he had insufficient information. He was to learn more over the weekend and vote at last night’s meeting. It seems that Council member Thurmond decided to vote against the proposal. As the proponents did not want the issue killed, it was deferred.

Those opposed to the road upgrade said there were 32 houses along the road and that the cost would amount to about $90,000 per house. This ratio was too high. And Council member Schweers opined that the existing road was not in bad condition. Other Council members disagreed and said that in wet weather, the road was often impassible. Emergency vehicles were not able to access many of the houses. A local resident noted that the need for work on the road had been pressing for nearly 50 years and nothing had been done. Costs were escalating and traffic was growing heavy.

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