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County Council, February 12

Mayor Riley seeks to accelerate project in anticipation of “stimulus funds”
CARTA “shocks” Council
Warwick Jones

Wih some of the Council members decked in formal wear and clearly a function to attend, last night’s Finance Committee meeting promised to be short. It was, though there were some interesting items.

Perhaps the most interesting was the request from Mayor Riley of the City of Charleston for an allocation of funds to complete the design for a pedestrian/ bike walk across the Ashley River Bridge in the City. The request was made because the Mayor hopes/ expects to receive money out of the “stimulus funds” now being generated in Washington.

The request seemingly was just received. No documentation was provided for the public though the packets of the Council members had information. Nor was the item on the agenda available on the County’s web site a few days before the meeting. All the information that follows comes from last night’s discussion.

Cost of construction is estimated at $5 million
The cost of construction the pathway is estimated at $5 million and is only part of the amount requested by the City from the Federal Government. It was suggested at the meeting by one Council member that the Mayor had his hand out for $1 billion. To us, such an allocation seems pretty generous for a City with a population of only 120,000 or so, but one of Mayor Riley’s past assistants, David Agnew, recently left Charleston to assume a leading position on the President’s staff in distributing funds to states and municipalities. So who knows?

Design cost funding by drawing on surplus balances
Staff suggested some options for Council. The first was that the County provides the $700,000 requested by drawing down funds that were surplus to approved projects. The funds are available either because the projects had been completed at below estimated cost, or the projects were expected to cost less than original provisions.

This option seemed agreeable to some Council members but others were more cautious. These real and potential surpluses should be preserved as some sort of cushion for funding of other projects, some suggested. And again, should Council be acting to move forward a project on the basis of a hope by the Mayor for a large share of the “stimulus funds”? Staff also noted that the Ashley River design project was on the Council’s schedule and due for completion next year. So in effect, the design phase was simply being accelerated so the project could be “shovel ready” within a relatively short time.

Council evenly divided
The Committee was split on the vote, Half (Pryor, Condon, Inabinett and Rawle) voted to provide the $700,000. The other half (Schweers, Thurmond, Darby and McKeown) voted to do nothing and let work on the project proceed as planned. The issue will now move to a full Council vote on Tuesday night. Council member Summey did not attend yesterday’s meeting. But as one Council member noted, he was likely to be heavily canvassed over the weekend. He could have added that one of his callers will undoubtedly be Mayor Riley.

CARTA surprises us
We thought we were in for a lengthy and perhaps heated discussion when the Fiscal Year 2009 Transit budgets came up for discussion. CARTA in recent years has requested allocations of funds from the half-cent sales tax beyond Transit’s 18% entitlement. Staff pointed out that half-cent sales tax receipts for this fiscal year were expected to be down 11% from last fiscal year. This represented a fall of $837,000 for Transit’s entitlement. Staff observed that part of this could be absorbed by using an accumulated fund balance of about $422,000. But there would still be a shortfall of $425,000 thereafter. This needed to be cut from the Transit Budget.

CARTA should deal with the problem
Council members then proceeded to debate the issue and there seemed a general consensus that CARTA had to deal with the problem. The Council had allocated CARTA more than its share in previous years and should not make any further special provision. Then Council member Darby asked permission from the Chair to allow Mr. Howard Chapman, the Executive Director of CARTA, to speak.

We have, says CARTA
Mr. Chapman made all of the Committee discussion moot. He didn’t want any special consideration. He could live with the shortfall and CARTA would still have a balanced budget. CARTA raised fares late last year. This and a higher patronage had lifted overall revenue. And besides, CARTA was benefiting from much lower fuel costs.

It was the shortest speech we have heard Mr. Chapman make. It was also a speech we suspect he enjoyed making. There was no more discussion on Committee and after some compliments on the progress of CARTA, Council approved staff’s suggestion to cut $401,000 from the CARTA budget and $24,000 from Tri County Link’s.

Adopts State code for board and commission members
The Finance Committee meeting ended with a vote, essentially to adopt that SC State’s requirement for those serving on County Boards and Commissions. At the last meeting, the Committee was told that all those serving on boards and commission were not permitted to appear before other board and commissions. This had been a requirement for many years and had never been enforced, at least in recent years. As Council member Rawle pointed out, this meant that such members could not speak out say, against a rezoning, or variances at the Planning Commission even when they were personally affected. The state law is not as harsh as the County requirement. In very broad terms, it simply prohibits members of boards or commission from gaining pecuniary benefit from their positions.

Other requirements possible
Some Committee members at the previous meeting had also requested that a provision be made in the application process for those wishing to serve on board and commissions for an appearance before Council. As Council member Schweers noted, Council members are often voting on appointing persons unknown to them. He thought the process would be helped if each applicant made a short presentation to Council. This issue is to be discussed at a future meeting.

For those of you who are wondering, the function that some members were attending was the opening of the South East Wildlife Exposition.

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