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City Council, October 7

Shorter prayers and presentations, please!
City raises taxi rates, and escapes chill from financial markets – for now
Marc Knapp

There was little to report on last night’s City Council meeting, so viewers will forgive me if I first express some irritations. One is the invocation, or prayer at the beginning of the Ways and Means and the Council meetings. Some folk object to any prayer before such public meetings, claiming that it is unconstitutional. But this is not my issue. I don’t object to them and indeed I see no harm in them. My issue is the nature of the prayers.

The Mayor or Committee Chair asks a Council member to make the invocation before each meeting, and all members have done so. Possibly reflecting their own beliefs, or the acknowledgement of a diversity of religious views of the public, some Council members simply ask for a moment of silence in which to reflect, or for individuals to make their own prayer. Some make a short prayer to a Christian God, seeking guidance during the Council meeting. And then there are the others!

Reflection or a short prayer is appropriate
Reflection or a short prayer are appropriate. A cutesy poem, or a lengthy exhortation that invokes the prophets, and names public figures, recently departed souls, sick relatives and so on, are not. We give the Mayor full marks for keeping his head bowed through most of these lengthy outpourings. But we have caught an opened eye occasionally as he too anxiously looked to an end.

And too many presentations and recognitions
And the other pet peeve is the innumerable presentations and recognitions. These can take up to an hour on occasions. There are some whose deeds are truly deserving of public acknowledgment, but there are others whose deeds may be noble and good, but do not merit the attention of Council. Interesting that the County Council also make presentations and recognitions, but the number is considerably less than those of the City. Oh, the City has more deserving people? Yeah, right!

Auditor points to a “significant Deficiency”
We came in at the tail end of an Audit Committee meeting so did not catch the discussion. But we obtained copies of the reports by the Independent Auditor, Bryan Truesdale Adkins & William. There were no startling observations and it was close to an “unqualified opinion” but the auditor did point to a “significant deficiency in internal control over financial reporting”. The first observation related to Accounts Payable. In a sampling of 131 disbursements and 207 invoices, 6 invoices were not stamped “paid”, 1 invoice had a mathematical error and 3 payments were made from copies of invoices. These were hardly “go to jail” offences. The City had explanations for some of the transgressions. It also said it would do better.

The other finding related to Travel Advances and Reimbursements It related to procedures and not to improper reimbursement.

City raises rate for metered cabs
The planned increase in the fare for metered cabs drew near 20 speakers in Citizens Participation. Those who spoke for an increase in the fares were all from the Yellow Cab Company – strangely, the only cab company in Charleston running metered taxis. All the other taxis are un-metered and subject to a different set of rates.

The City proposes to raise the charge from $2 for the first 1/5 of a mile and $0.35 per 1/5 of a mile thereafter, to $5 for the first 2 miles and $0.35 per 1/5 of a mile thereafter. The increase was to compensate for higher gasoline prices.

According to some of the cab drivers, the increase was necessary to “level the playing field” with the un-metered cabs. These cabs charge $5 on entering a taxi. The total charge will reflect the number of passengers ($1 a head) and how many zone boundaries are crossed – zone boundaries are defined by the City. The drivers noted that the majority of trips in the City were less than 2 miles and therefore they generally received less than $5 per trip. The increase in the initial rate will now put them on a par with the un-metered cabs

The Council will hold a public meeting on the issue on October 27.

Financial turmoil having impact
The current turmoil in financial markets will undoubtedly affect the City. The Council last night approved the deferral of the purchase of the St Philip Street Garage to the end of January next. The sale was approved some months ago and was due for closing. However, it seems at the request of the seller, the sale has been deferred. And according to the Mayor, the City is happy about the deferment.

The City planned to make a bond issue to finance the $17 million acquisition. If it made the bond issue now, it would pay 100 basis points more in the interest rate than some weeks ago. Hopefully calm will return to markets by the New Year and lending conditions will be more favorable. Assuming the bond issue were for $17 million, the 100 basis points would add $170,000 a year to the interest charge.

I suspect the City has not yet seen the worst of the financial crisis. In Citizens Participation, I noted that the City was now into the budget process for next financial year. It should prepare for the worst. Anecdotal evidence points to a sharp slowdown in the local economy. Housing and construction has been weak for some time but other businesses are now suffering. Two restaurants whose owners I know have suffered 20% declines in patronage in recent weeks.

The City needs to start making cut backs now. We do not need another increase in property taxes. Property values are falling and the taxing ability of the City could well decline after fiscal 2009

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