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County Council, August 7

Harmony Hill approval still stands
Strong opposition to any change in Council Chairman position
Warwick Jones

The purchase of the 430 acre Harmony Hall property and the appropriate form of government for the County were the major items up for discussion at yesterday‘s Finance Committee meeting. Predictably, there was lots of talk, but not much action. The decision to allow the Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC) to purchase the Harmony Hall property for $10 million was allowed to stand. And despite opposition to any proposal to change the present nature of the County’s government, it was agreed to allow an expert address the Council at some future date as to the merits of the different forms of government.

Council approved the purchase of the Harmony Hall property at its last meeting. Four Council members either recused themselves, (Thurmond), abstained (Condon) or voted against it (Schweers and McKeown). Those opposing the acquisition cited insufficient information to support the funding, the lack of notice in bringing it to Council, heavy depletion of the $36 million allocated to the PRC from sales tax funding, and the need for green space, east of the Cooper.

The Post and Courier took up the cudgel against the purchase in the interim with an editorial criticizing the decision. We understand that to blunt any criticism, Chairman Scott agreed to put the matter on the Finance Committee agenda last night, at least for discussion.

PRC questioned about its objectives
The issues raised at the previous meeting were again raised last night but there was additional information with which the opposing Council members whipped the PRC. It related to its objectives. We are not sure when these objectives were set, but the Chairman of the PRC described them as “pie in the sky”. The PRC plan set priorities for park land acquisition. At the top of the list, Priority One, was East of the Cooper with a target of 1380 acres. It was followed by West Ashley with 1240 acres and North Charleston with 1104 acres. Amongst the top priorities were boat landings.

In contrast, the lowest priority, (Priority Three) was the West and East Counties with 270 acres and 170 acres respectively. The Harmony Hall property falls into the West County. As well, despite it 1.7 mile water frontage, there are no sites suitable for creating boat landings at Harmony Hall.

Council members asked the obvious question. Why such a large purchase in an area with a low priority?

PRC continues to strongly defend its purchase
The PRC responded forcefully. If it waited to make significant purchases in Priority One areas, it may never make other purchases or have funds for other purchases. There was very limited land available in either East Cooper or North Charleston. Land that might be available in East Cooper was very expensive and a significant purchase would make a very large hole in PRC funds. And there was virtually no land remaining in North Charleston that was suitable for day parks. The PRC spokesman might have added that the purchase of the Long Savannah tract would fulfill its objective in West Ashley, even though there were more hoops to jump through before consummation of the purchase.

PRC members waxed again about the quality of the Harmony Hill property, its water access and the value. No Council member argued about its quality even though some were unhappy about the purchase.

Seller in difficult timing situation in relation to borrowings
Interesting but perhaps irrelevant in assessing the worth of the property, relates to the seller’s financial predicament. The seller had signed a note committing to repayment of $11.5 million in borrowings by August 7. There had been speculation that he could have been bankrupted if he had not met the payment. However Council was told that the term of the note had been extended to the end of this month. The existence of this note explains why the PRC was seeking prompt consideration of its request to approve funding.

Chairman opines the value of Harmony Hall will increase substantially
Chairman Scott would up the discussion on the issue with an eloquent comment as to why he supported the purchase. There would never be another opportunity quite like this, he said. He was somewhat skeptical of the purchase before he went to see the property but the visit made him a strong supporter. He was sure that the Council’s judgment and decision would be applauded over time. The value of the land in some years could be a multiple of the $10 million cost.

Council member Inabinett refuses to change vote
Council member Inabinett expressed disappointment that no boat landings could be created at Harmony Hall. Of all the Council members who voted for the purchase, he was the only one who looked as though he could change his mind. Bringing the matter to an end, Council member McKeown asked him as to whether he was prepared to change his vote. He wasn’t. And because of Council rules requiring an indication of a change in attitude of a member who previously voted for the prevailing view, the matter went no further. So as far as Council is concerned, Harmony Hall is a done deal.

Council member speaks for change in role of Council Chairman
Some Council members were at a loss to understand why Council member McKeown was questioning the need to change the present system of government of the County. The only complaint seems to come from the Post and Courier. Council member McKeown had given notice some time ago that he planned to initiate discussion as whether the County should have a county-wide elected Chairman or Supervisor rather than the present system with the Chairman is elected from Council members. Under the system proposed by Council member McKeown, the Chairman or Supervisor would have a large administrative role.

Council member McKeown said that all Council members were now elected under “single member” district voting. In a sense, there was nobody representing the whole County and this concerned him. This void would be addressed if the Chairman was elected “at large”. He suggested that the issue be placed on a referendum for the County to decide what was best.

Some members very opposed to change
Council members Inabinett, Pryor and Darby were strongly opposed to any change. They took issue as to whether Council members represented only their districts. They also noted that the introduction of singe member districts had brought a big change to the operation of the County Government. Representatives of both the Democratic and Republican Parties were represented and in the opinion of Council member Darby, Council members had set aside politics and acted in what they saw as the best interest of its citizens, he said. He would be very unhappy to see any form of “at large” voting reintroduced into the County considering the performance of the Council before single member district voting was introduced.

Council member Condon suggested that an “expert” be asked to address Council as to the merits of the different forms of government. We can’t remember a vote being taken but it seems all or most Council members were in agreement.

Council adopts road ranking system, but with reservations
We agree with Chairman Scott is his applause for what Council member Schweers was trying to accomplish. But like the Chairman, we think the system devised by staff for ranking road projects has some limitations.

At an earlier meeting this year, Council member Schweers asked whether staff could devise a way of rating road projects and remove politics from the process. The results of the staff effort were presented last night.

The evaluation is based on a scoring system. The score is calculated as follows;
Each road project was given a score, ranging between 1 and 5 for each of the following categories.
1. Benefit for use in an emergency (Fire, EMS access )
2. Residential density along the road (High density, high score)
3. Traffic (vehicles per day)
4. Absence of construction hazards (wet lands say)
5. Support of residents
6. Community support

The scoring of each category is added together with the maximum total score being 30 (6x5). This total was then divided by the cost of the road but the denominator being the cost of the road divided by $10,000 e.g. If the cost were $50,000, the denominator would be 5.

Staff suggested that any score over 1 would be good while a score less that 0.2 say would be bad.

Time that projects have waited for attention should be considered
There were two criticisms of the scheme. The scoring system made no allowance for the length of time that residents have been waiting for road improvements. This particularly worried Council members Inabinett, Darby and Chairman Scott. But as Council member Schweers suggested, this was re-injecting politics into the issue. Road projects should be judged on their immediate merit, nothing more.

Penalizing projects because of size was not right
More trenchant criticism in our view was that expressed by Council member Thurmond. The system penalized large projects. A project could accumulate the maximum 30 points by the addition of the assessments relating Categories 1 to 6. But if the cost were say $500,000, the overall score would be reduced to an unattractive level because of the high denominator of 50. It was wrong he said to penalize a road project because of its size.

Council voted to accept the ranking system. It agreed that was a step in the right direction but it was not the only tool that would be used in assessment of road projects.