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City Council, August 19

Sympathy but little hope for “baggy pants” ban
City accepts optimistic projections and provides loan for building school
Marc Knapp

Council member Gilliard joins the state legislature at the beginning of next year. Many of us who were attending last night's meeting, and probably a number of the Council members wished it were sooner. The Council member and Council member Lewis were sponsoring an ordinance to stop what the considered indecent exposure by the youth of Charleston. It did not go down well with some Council members, one calling it silly and ridiculous. Council member Gilliard responded a number of times, each response becoming more shrill, heated and hostile. He derided the newly elected Council members, two of which spoke against the proposed ordinance. And if anybody were snickering, and that was his accusation, it was at the man, the hyperbole, and the exhaustion of all as the meeting pushed towards 5 hours.

“Not an ordinance to legislate morality”
Council member Lewis introduced the ordinance. He said it was not an ordinance to “legislate morality” or to stop the youth of Charleston wearing “baggy or swaggy” pants. It was to stop them from wearing pants so low that underpants and flesh were exposed. It was offensive and indecent exposure.

The wording of the proposed ordinance was as follows

An ordinance to amend chapter 21 of the code of the city of Charleston. By adding a new section 21-167 thereto which shall prohibit any person from appearing in public wearing his or her pants more than 3 inches below his or her hips (crest or ileum) and thereby exposing his or her skin or intimate clothing.

Restrained opening remarks
Both Council members Mitchell and Lewis were restrained in their opening remarks. Reflecting probably anticipation of rejection by Council, they asked Council to consider the ordinance and by inference, to delay any vote. This was taken up later by Council member Shirley. He was not in favor of the ordinance. But he thought the sponsoring Council members should be given an opportunity to meet with the legal department and come back with a more refined suggestion. Maybe an ordinance was unenforceable and only a proclamation would be legally possible. He sympathized with the Council members’ objectives and they should be given a chance to come back with something that Council could agree to, he said. Council ultimately voted for a deferral with Council members White, Wilson, Alexander, and the Mayor against.

A mannequin to demonstrate
Council member Gillard brought a mannequin to the meeting. To illustrate his point, it was dressed and with underpants in the normal position. The pants were not - the top being slightly below the crotch. Yes, we laughed during the Council member’s presentation. It was when he said he was chased by a man with a gun dressed in this manner. A man running with the top of his trousers below his crotch? That would've been a sight to see.

But to give the Council member and those who supported him their due, something needs to be done to stop the youth of Charleston and particularly on the Eastside, turning to crime. The Council members said that so many youths come from single parent families and are undisciplined. Allowing them to dress “indecently” does nothing to instill discipline. Council member Gilliard said that many of the youths dressing “indecently” did so as a badge of membership of a gang.

Probably no Council member disagreed about the need to provide more for the youth of Charleston. Indeed, some members of the audience spoke of this need. But they and some other members of Council, said there was no need for an ordinance to define a dress code for youth. Wearing baggy pants even below the hips was the present fashion and like most fashions, would pass.

Mayor says proposed ordinance is unconstitutional
Mayor Riley’s statement probably should've ended all discussion on the issue. He said the ordinance in its present form, had no chance of being upheld in courts. It was unconstitutional. No court would agree that wearing of trousers in such a manner was indecent exposure. To pass it was “wrong”.

Council Member Mallard responded to the Mayor’s comment which caused unintended laughter. So what, “Council is always doing something illegal”. He was supporting the need for an ordinance and was looking at the number of issues that had drawn the City to court, such as the formation of James Island. The City should not be daunted by another court case he meant to suggest. Unfortunately, his words conveyed a different impression.

City to act as banker to College of Building Arts. How real are the School’s projections
We expected a bigger turnout from citizens to oppose the city's plan to lend $734,500 to the American College of the Building Arts, a.k.a. School of Building Arts or SOBA. The loan would bear interest of 5% and be repayable beginning 2010 and extending to 2017 with $34,500 in 2010 and $100,000 in each of the subsequent years.

Despite considerable opposition from citizens, the school acquired the McLeod Plantation from Historic Charleston Foundation about 5 years or so ago. The Friends of MacLeod formed to oppose the acquisition and still seek to stop it. They want to plantation properly restored and find the college's plans incompatible with restoration.

Council member says loan is nothing to do with McLeod
Maybe it was the inordinate length of last night's meeting that caused some speakers to lose patience and depart. Or maybe it was Council member White, who noted at the beginning of the discussion that the issue had nothing to do with McLeod. It was simply the City, acting as a banker to allow the College to meets its running expenses and time to achieve accreditation. He noted that the loan would be secured by the property owned by the school i.e. the old jailhouse and the McLeod Plantation.

Council seeks few details of City’s recourse in event of default
Of course, it was not quite so simple. The Mayor noted that there are some liens on the jail property, and there was also restriction on McLeod placed by the Historic Charleston Foundation (HCF). If the property were not used by the school, it was to revert to the Foundation. The Mayor was confident that in the event of default, HCF would make the City whole. The Council members did not ask for more details.

The School provides some details
Council members Shirley and Mallard felt some discomfort about the proposed loan. They asked for more details about the school, its history and prospects. General Bridgewater who recently became head of the school, said $10-$11 million had been raised from the public, and from government grants. Much of this had gone on establishment expenses and preservation. It also was used to meet some running expenses. When he came on board, running expenses were about $3.5 million a year but they had now been cut to $2.5 million a year. (Nobody asked why they were so high originally and what he had cut)

No accreditation is problem
The problem for the College was the lack of accreditation. Once this was received, the students attending the school would be better placed to obtain student loans. The General hoped that by 2012, there would be 140 students attending the college. This year, 7 students graduated and 24 new students were accepted.

The General said the tuition bill for the College is about $1,660,000 a year. This bill would be met if the school had only a total enrolment of 85. He also spoke of new initiatives to raise funds for the school.

How profitable will the school be?
Perhaps as with all Colleges, the College of Building Arts will never be profitable. It will rely of some level of grants to “break even”. It offers a mixture of 2 and 4 years courses. At the 85 student level, where $1.66 million is generated from tuition fees, there is still a shortfall of about $0.9 million from the $2.5 million yearly expense. To get to projected capacity of 140 students would need probably about 50 new students a year, allowing for dropouts, nearly double the level of this year. At this higher level, tuition fees would generate an estimated $2.9 million, leaving about $400,000 over present annual cost levels

Will the College achieve the 140 student level by 2012, receive sufficient grants, and be able to meet the City loan obligation. We don’t know, but the Trustees of the School seemed confident. But then again, they were confident of the early receipt of accreditation and higher student numbers in the past. And they didn’t happen.

Council member Shirley asked the General what the school would do if its request were rejected. Had it sought funds from individuals or corporations? The General responded it was attempting to tap private sources. The rejection by Council would simply mean that the College had to obtain funds elsewhere. With somr of the Trustees ranking amongst the wealthiest in the area, one has to wonder why they didn’t just go to a bank for this loan. The Board has not accomplished any of its objectives so far. Will the taxpayers take in the wallet again for one of the Mayors’s boondoggles?

The City should be banker to any entity
In my view, the City should not be banker to the school or any other entity. My colleague Warwick Jones spoke similarly and noted that the loan would reduce the Undesignated Balance of the General Fund. The balance had dropped in recent years as a percentage of expenditures. Standard & Poor's and other rating agencies recommend that municipalities keep the equivalent of two months expenditures in undesignated funds to cover contingencies and shortfalls. Mr. Jones estimated a two months provision is over $20 million and compares with a $16.4 million shown in budget figures on the City’s web site and $18 million given last night by City CFO Bedard.

With possible deficits looming, can the City afford to run down Fund balances
The interest rate that the City pays on its borrowings is largely determined by the rating agencies. The City is unlikely to see a change its credit rating because of this loan. But as Mr. Jones pointed out, the County is suffering from high inflation and energy costs. Unless taxes were raised or costs cut, major deficits are in store, County staff said at the last Finance Committee meeting. The same problem is likely to felt the City, and the City may need to dip further into Undesignated Funds balances to meet obligations. But the scope is reduced by the loan to the school. Citizens are not likely to take kindly to a tax increase, which could have been avoided if money had not been advanced to the College of Building Arts.