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City Council, December 6

City wraps up 2008 budget. What was the cost of the Super Store fire?
Citizen takes issue with Council member Gallant
Marc Knapp

So what was the cost of the Super Sofa Store? Council member Fishburne both posed and tried to answer this question during budget discussions at City Council last night. His estimate, made after discussion with CFO Bedard of the City was about $5.9 million. This included accumulated spending by the City to date of $2.8 million, and another $2.4 million budgeted in 2008, and other items such as air pack purchases. The Council member also argued that much of the spending represent under-funding of the Fire Department in previous years. The City was now just attempting to catch up.

Mayor takes issue with estimate
Understandably the Mayor took issue with the estimate though did not attempt to provide his own. He was helped slightly by CFO Bedard, who confessed to an error in calculating spending to date – it was $2.61 million not $2.8 million told to the Council member. The Mayor said that some of the spending was actually on upgrades, particularly for safety equipment. He said a lot more but we could not follow his thoughts.

Spending in wake of fire suggest under-funding before
Council member Fishburne noted that more equipment was being bought, hoses were being changed, with the diameter increasing for 2” to 5”, more people were being hired and more training was being provided. Why was this not done before the tragedy if it were not related to the tragedy? As he implied, it pointed to deficiencies with the department. As a member of Council, he acknowledged his responsibility for the shortcomings. But Council had always been told by the Mayor of the high caliber of the Fire Department.

Council largely remained silent on the issue. Council member Tinkler noted the “wonderful” letters to the Editor in the Post and Courier praising the Fire Department (We wonder how many letters were received that were critical and remained unpublished) and Council member Lewis stated that “it was time to move on”.

Much discussion but little worthy of comment
Much of the discussion last night related to the 2008 Budget. Most of what was said is hardly worth commenting on. The Mayor gave his yearly speech comparing the millage rate in the City with some municipalities while Council members Tinkler and Wilson gave laudatory and sycophantic speeches about the City’s fiscal record. Hip waders were needed during these diatribes. Council member Shirley stated that nobody had complained to him about the proposed property tax increase while Council member Fishburne said that he received a number of complaints. I, on the other hand told Council during Citizens Participation that many people had given up on commenting on the City's actions because it never paid any attention.

Council member Shirley also commented that he had spent some time going over the Assistance Program – a.k.a as handouts to charities. In earlier comments, he had voiced some skepticism about the program. But now he was “genuinely happy about the way the City was doing business”. We commented on the program in a note published on December 3 - A summary of the City’s 2008 Budget.

Accommodation tax budget passed without any discussion
As well as approving the 2008 City Budget, Council also approved the 2008 Accommodation Tax budget, the latter generating no discussion. Viewers can see the Accommodation Tax budget by pressing Download file

The revenue is derived by the imposition of a 1% tax on gross revenue on room rentals by hotels, guest houses etc. Reflecting the increase in revenue, spending is projected to increase by 23% in 2008. As is typical, the majority of recipients have been on the distribution list for some time and most received higher grants. But there are some new names and subtractions. The biggest hand out – at $1.07 million - went to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, a 23% increase over 2007. The Dock Street Theatre received $390,000 for renovation and the Gaillard Audatoreum $200,000 for seat replacement. The Charleston Museum and the SC Aquarium received $180,000 and $175,000 respectively.

Citizen takes Council member Gallant to task
If anybody fell asleep during the budget discussion, they were awakened when a citizen rose to complain of the hard and rude treatment accorded her by Council member Gallant and the City Police. The young lady said that she had leased the MUSC parking lot for the day of the football match between the Citadel and University of SC. She had been assisted by Council member Gilliard in securing the lot. She said that on the day of the match, Council member Gallant had told her to move off the lot and called the police. The Council member had been insulting and “in her face”. She had more to say but was cut off by the Clerk of Council after her 3 minutes had expired in Citizen’s Participation.

Council member Gallant rose at the conclusion and defended his action. He said that he was not rude and that is was the citizen who was rude and the police were needed to get her “out of his face”. The citizen was charging $20 a car to park during the period and this was exorbitant, he said.

City gave the citizen a lease over the lot
We can’t comment as to where the truth lies with this exchange but the facts, at least told by the lady to us, are these. The City owns the parking lot and it leases it to MUSC for the week days. She approached MUSC and the City about leasing the lot for the day of the match - on a Saturday – and this was agreed to. The lady said she had the necessary permits and documentation. Her tenure was perfectly legal and she had the right to charge whatever amount she liked. The legitimacy of her tenure was questioned by the Council member and the police, and she noted that the police recognized her right after inspecting the documents. She also noted that both the Citadel and the USC had approached her on the day to offer to buy her out, but she refused.

Some questions need to be asked of City
We find it hard to understand why the City leased out the lot to the lady. Maybe it stood to generate substantial revenue. We also wonder about the role of Council member Gilliard, who incidentally was not at the Council meeting last night. Clearly the lady had a commercial motive. And maybe the $20 a car was excessive, but that is a matter of opinion. But it is clear she had a legal right. She did not deserve the confrontation. We bet there is no way she will get the lease next year from the City!

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