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City Council, February 24

Anger over Sofa Store fire accountability flares
New Council member, Boat abandonment, new bond issue
Marc Knapp

The embers over the accountability for the Sofa Super Store fire were fanned by some citizens last night. Members of the family of one of the lost firemen spoke harshly about the issue. Their appearance before Council was precipitated by the release of the report on the fire by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). One of the speakers asked why the report was not on the agenda of the Council meeting. It ought to be, he said.

Viewers can see a copy of the report by pressing here. It is a strange report in that it almost treats the incident as an academic exercise. It makes a series of recommendations from its study which in turn is based on site inspections, discussions with City staff and other government agencies. As one of the speakers at last night meeting noted, there is no reference to Charleston until the appendices in the back of the report. In fact in some correspondence in the report, the City of Charleston's name is blacked out. In a sense, the recommendations are the pointers to the deficiencies of the Fire Department and the actions of firemen on the fateful night on June 18, 2007. And as others have commented, the recommendations and observations are very similar to those in the well publicized Routley Report released May 2008. Press here to view.

The family members, and Mr. Roger Yow of the local firefighters union, stated they were looking to accountability for what happened at the fire. If the previous FD Head, Chief Thomas, was not accountable, who was, the Mayor? Council could not escape responsibility either. And there were other words, very harsh about Chief Thomas and the Mayor. For those who lost loved ones, the embers of the fire will never be extinguished.

But what did Mayor Riley really think?
It must have been a tough night for Mayor Riley. He had a bad cold to start with. He was beaten up by his critics over the Sofa Store fire but he also had to swear into office a new Council member, Dudley Gregorie. Council member Gregorie ran for Mayor at the last election and of course, lost to Mayor Riley. But he recently ran for the City Council seat vacated by Council member Gilliard who was elected to the State House of Representatives. Council member Gregorie won his seat despite the efforts of the Mayor, Representative Gilliard and Senator Ford to seat his opponent. Perhaps unprecedented, the Mayor made house-to-house calls in the area to support Council member Gregorie’s opponent.

Mayor Riley was obviously concerned about his grip over Council. Council member Gilliard was one on his most faithful and reliable supporters. Changes in the membership over recent years have resulted in a Council that is less reliable in supporting his policies. The election of Council member Gregorie has taken Council further down that path. More scrutiny and discussion of City policy and actions can only be a good thing .

If the Mayor was feeling uncomfortable, it didn’t show. He spoke in good humor with no hint of disappointment or ill will. Council member Gregorie gave an eloquent and short speech and took his place on Council. He will have to contest his seat again in November so we expect he will be looking after his constituents’ interests particularly well over the next 9 months.

Illegal to abandon boat (but the police may not get you)
Everybody agreed that boats should not be abandoned and that owners should be held responsible. But Council member White pointed out what would follow, or not follow. The State already had an ordinance that made abandonment illegal. The City ordinance overlapped that of the State and would make the City liable for policing the ordinance. It would also make it financially liable for retrieval and disposal. And the City had little spare cash presently. He called on Police Chief Mullen who said that his department did not have the resources to police the ordinance. Given the circumstances of the times, he had no spare resources. So Council member White asked why approve the ordinance, at least at this time? He was supported by Council member Alexander

Council member Mallard spoke with some indignation and asked why Council was prevaricating on the Ordinance. He simply wanted to make abandonment illegal. “The prettiest city in America was losing its glamour” He accepted that enforcement may not be possible at this stage, but let’s make it illegal anyhow. There were other regulations on the books that the City did not actively enforce. But they were there and could be enforced.

There was a lot of discussion and ultimately Council voted for the ordinance with an amendment that it would not come into force for 120 days. In the meantime, the police and staff would look further at what was entailed in enforcing the ordinance and the costs.

Further benefits from change in credit rating and lower interest rates
The City is planning to refinance $10 million in bonds that were issued two years ago to finance redevelopment in the Neck area. The bonds were to be amortized from property taxes in a Tax Increment Financing deal, and mature in another 2 years. However, because of the benefit of the City’s better bond rating, and low interest rates, the bonds are to be called and a new issue made. According to City Attorney De Saussure, the coupon on the new bonds will be between 3.25 and 3.5%. This compares with 7.5% on the present bonds, and allows savings of roughly $40,000 a year.

The City will also raise an extra amount, possibly as much as $7 million. The extra funds would also be used for financing infrastructure in the Neck area. The final amount of extra funding will be better defined by the City and will depend on the funds flowing from the Neck area under the TIF and available to amortize the new bonds.

Spring and Cannon Streets now 2 way
There were a lot of citizens at the meeting last night, many coming to support the conversion of Spring and Cannon Streets to two-way traffic. The conversion has been discussed for some years and had the support of neighborhood groups. It also had the unanimous support of Council.

Members asked when the change would be made. They didn’t get good answers from staff .But it seems it will still be some time. Signage and other things still have to be prepared.

Some questions over financing of Whitepoint Gardens project
We were pleased to see Council member Lewis ask questions about financing of the renovation of Whitepoint Gardens. He followed on questions I asked in Citizens Participation. Council had earlier approved spending of $273,000 for renovation of the bandstand in the Gardens. I noted that total funding for the gardens of $886,000 had been approved and provided over the last 5 years and of which $160,000 had been spent. According to the figures supplied last night, there was an amount of $376,000 in contingencies in this $886,000 budget, none of which was spent.

Why was the contingency figure so high? Council member Lewis also wanted to know why staff could approve or award contracts up to $40,000 that would be taken out of this contingency provision.

The Mayor responded and essentially said that it was all normal in a project like this where the level of the expense was hard to estimate. He also indicated that the bandstand renovation cost was less than earlier expected. Still looks strange to us.

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