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City Council, December 9

Animal Circus!
Budgets passed without much comment
Marc Knapp

Dogs chasing their tails could describe much of last night’s City Council meeting. At one stage, a confused Council member Shirley asked where Council was on the discussion. We are not sure he got satisfaction, but thereafter the chase began again to the merriment of Council and the Mayor. One frequent critic of the City said she had never enjoyed herself so much at a Council meeting. She only wished that Council devote as much time to her issues as they do to dogs and cats.

Before Council were some proposed changes to ordinances relating to pets. The changes were suggested by Council members White and Alexander. One change was to help clarify the existing ordinance and had been sought by the Livability Country. The others were partly prompted by the Old Charlestowne Neighborhood Assoication and to bring the City ordinances in line with those of the County.

We could see only merit in all the proposed changes though the first Ordinance did not go far enough and is still open to ridicule in my view. But the other proposed changes brought out a number of citizens, and representatives of the SPCA, both in support and opposition. If there were hostility from the latter groups, it was largely because of the lack of notice. They were most affected by the proposed changes and they had received no notice. However, they also preferred to have all pets spayed or neutered if picked up by the City.

How many pets are you allowed to keep?
The existing ordinance allows a household to have only 3 dogs or 3 cats. The Livability Court wondered whether this would allow only a maximum of 3 animals, or allow a total of 6 as long as it was 3 and 3. The proposed ordinance said it could be the latter. But as some Council members asked why were the same limits imposed on all citizens. Somebody living on Johns Island could have space for far more animals than say a person living in a small house on the Peninsula. Council voted to defer the issue to allow for more public input.

No dissention that animals must be secured in open vehicle
The next proposed change tightened up the regulation relating to an animal in an open vehicle, either stationary or moving. There was no dissention over this and Council voted that animals had to be secured.

Should animals be spayed or neutered regardless?
The third proposed change was the most controversial. The existing ordinance says that an animal if picked up “at large” by the City, will be given back to the owner only if it is spayed or neutered. If it isn’t, the SPCA will do it. Council members White and Alexander thought this was too tough. Some dogs, being dogs, like to wander if they get a chance. And even responsible owners sometimes inadvertently allow dogs to wander. Better to introduce a fine for owners to retrieve their dogs “whole”. So they proposed an Ordinance similar to that of the County which imposes a $200 fine on owners who want their dog back “whole” for the first offence and a fine of $1000 for the second. The SPCA and some others wanted the City to spay or neuter regardless and some citizens and some Council members thought that this was too tough.

We suspect the mood of Council lies with the proposal of Council members White and Alexander. And if there were an issue, it might be as to whether the $200 first fine was high enough. Should it be $400 or even more? We chatted with some of the folk from the animal help groups and they concurred that a fine of $500 or so would probably do the job. The fine of $200 was not high enough and would not deter offending dog owners.

Council certainly was mindful of the good job that the SPCA was doing and a spokesman noted that over 12,000 animals were picked up each year and left with SPCA. More than half of these animals were euthanised, The SPCA sees spaying and neutering as the solution to reducing the “at large” population of dogs and cats. Council agreed to defer a decision and allow more time for meetings with the animal welfare groups before voting on the controversial ordinance.

Council votes for a leash law – probably
The remaining proposed change related to restraining dogs. Should they always be on a leash or could they be allowed to be controlled only by voice commands? The proposed ordinance said that voice commands were out and only a leash was permitted. The discussion on Council went further than this. Some dog owners who use Cannon Park for exercising their dogs, wanted space to allow their dogs to run free. The City was sympathetic and was working on an ordinance to set specific times and a specific area for the leash law to be relaxed. The Council voted in favor of the ordinance but on the understanding that there could be modifications proposed before subsequent readings.

No problems with City Budget
Not surprisingly, Council voted to accept the proposed City Budget. There was little discussion. Council member White had some comment and asked that in future all recipients of Assistance Funds be recognized Non profits and that they perform services that in normal circumstances the City would be required to perform. Council member Lewis, recognizing the toughness of the times asked that Council be briefed each month as to how the City was performing relative to budget.
Accommodation Tax and Fee, and Hospitality Fee Budgets down for 2009
Council also voted on the 2009 budgets for the State-collected Accommodation Tax, the Hospitality Fee, and the Municipal Accommodations Fee. All of the revenues are collected by way of a sales tax, the first imposed by the State and allocated to the City by way of formula and the latter imposed by the City. Understandably with the economy under siege, the City anticipates receipts to be down sharply -15 to 20% - for 2009 compared with 2008.

Accommodations Tax Fund Download file
Hospitality FeeDownload file
Accommodations Fee Download file

The Aquarium, one way or another accounts for $570,000 of the distribution from these funds. Which reminds us that the Aquarium has not reported the results yet for 2007. Its 990 form should have been submitted to the IRS by May this year but, as usual, it probably filed for an extension. As far as I can recall, its results have always been reported well before December each year. Maybe times are very tough!

Major redevelopment on Westside of Peninsula

The City also announced its plans for the redevelopment of a 42 acres east of the Ashley River and running East of Lockwood Boulevard. The core of this area, the Horizon Area redevelopment Project is to be redeveloped into a bio-tech “park” and will be a venture in which the MUSC, the SC Research Association and the City will be partners. As City staff explains, the project will be an extension in a sense of plans to develop the old Trolley Bus Building on the Peninsula. The company and entities spawned in this development will be able to move on to a more substantial place in this new development.

City staff talked about the concept of the project. And as the Mayor said, the pictures in the diagrams were only conceptual and did not represent actual planned buildings. Which begged us to ask the question as to how the City could be sure that the development cost would be $$155.47 million? The money is planned to go to infrastructure, roads, and sidewalks, parks, parking garages, civic building and cultural features. Presumably, private interest would finance and construct the buildings and research facilities.

TIF of $100 million
The City is planning on creating a Tax Increment Financing District (TIF) and to incur indebtedness to a maximum of $100 million. The assessed value of the properties in the area is presently $4.7 million. After redevelopment, the “estimated equalized assessed valuation” is expected to be $77.8 million.

Council member Lewis noted the drainage problems in the area and that it was slowly sinking. Staff acknowledged that the area was all reclaimed land but special attention would be given to drainage. The Mayor also noted that he was leaning on Washington for funds to address the drainage problems of the area.

The TIF area also encompasses some substantial blocks of housing. These would be maintained but would also benefit from infrastructure spending. There were no plans to destroy any housing, staff said. The duration of the plan is 25 years.

The City agreed to appoint the sitting Council member for the district and the head of the Westside Neighborhood Association to the Board of the group. The district is presently without a representative on Council with the resignation of Council member Gilliard.