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County Council, January 7

Council member Pryor elected to Chair again, and Summey to Vice Chair
Boeing, zoning fees and property taxes
Warwick Jones

It was the first meeting of the year for the Finance Committee; As usual the first business was the election of the Chair and Vice Chair of Council. There were no surprises. Council member Teddie Pryor was re-elected as Chair. Council member Thurmond was nominated for Vice Chair but declined the nomination as he did not plan to run again when his term expired at the end of the year. Council member Summey was then nominated and elected unanimously.

The items on the agenda for the day were hardly big issues but they provoked some serious discussion amongst Committee members, and some amusement amongst attendees.

Public should be given details of the deal with Boeing
One of the items was the acceptance of a grant from Berkeley Electric Coop of $100,000 to contribute to funding of infrastructure for the new Boeing facility. The grant was unusual but it was not this that provoked the discussion – it was Council member Thurmond’s charge that few details of the arrangement that Boeing had with the County had been disclosed. The public hearing last month was a debacle (nobody spoke) and that another public hearing should be held after the pertinent details released. He emphasized that he was very supportive of the Boeing deal but felt strongly that the public should be more fully informed.

Chairman Pryor and other Council members responded that Boeing, as part of it deal with the State and other entities had insisted on confidentiality and that this was a condition of the agreement. If the Boeing deal was to be done, the County had to comply. The Council members were privy to the details but they could not be revealed to the public, at least for now.

There was a lot more discussion, much of it repetitive. We think Council member Thurmond has a point. But the Boeing deal will do much for the County and the non disclosure of some of the terms may have been a worthwhile price. The public hearing may well have been pointless but as Committee members pointed out, the hearing was necessary by State law. The discussion of the Committee was finally cut by a call for an executive session following which, the Committee voted on accepting the $100,000 and moved on to the next item.

Why is Berkeley Electric Co-op giving $100,000?
For those who wonder why Berkeley Electric Co-op is giving the County $100,000, the explanation lies in State Law. The Co-op, as are others, is obliged to pay the state $300,000 a year as a licensing fee. However the Co-op has the option to use the funds for financing economic development within its jurisdiction and beyond. The Co-op thought that it was better that the funds be used locally rather than sent to Columbia. And although the Boeing development will have no direct impact on the Co-op or Berkeley County, the development should help the local economy generally.

Application by St Johns Water Company reveals an inadequate fee schedule
The sole item on the Planning and Public Works agenda was the waving of a fee from the St. Johns Water Company. The latter was applying for Planned Unit Development to merge two parcels of land. It was no big deal but the fee imposed by the County under its fee schedule was $392. However for entities like the water company that serve a “public purpose”, the fee can be waived according to County ordinance and hence the water company’s request.

Chairman Pryor spoke first ands set that such a request had not come up for some years. He was not easy about the waiver generally allowed for entities serving “public purpose”. He suggested that the waiver cap be set at $1000. What followed was part comedy. Council member Condon was all for the waiver until staff revealed that the actual cost, beyond that of staff time, for approving the PUD would be over $550. This was the cost of advertising as required by State law. So the County would be out of pocket if it approved the waiver and still out of pocket if it didn’t approve.

Staff noted that the fee schedule had not be changed for some years and that a necessary updating was under way to ensure that the County was not out of pocket on any application .

Many members insisted that fees should at least cover the hard cost of an application with the suggestion, or implication that this should apply to the water company. This was the humor. The water company had applied for a waiver, permitted by the County, but was now facing a higher fee of $500 or more.

No vote was taken and the Planning/Public Works Committee will review a new fee structure that staff will provide within the next 6 weeks.

County will not signal opposition to possible changes in property tax assessment
The final item on the agenda generate some heat as Council member Rawle clashed with most members of Council but particularly Council member McKeown. The issue was whether the County should send a resolution to Columbia in support of maintaining the present system of assessing properties at market value for tax purposes following sale or transfer. Presently there is an initiative to revert to maintaining the assessed value of a property at its pre sale level until the next general re-assessment. It has been estimated that if the change were to occur, the County would lose $2.7 million in revenue a year.

Council member McKeown called the resolution a colossal mistake. He and other members spoke of the damage that the immediate reassessment to market value was having on business and homeowners and the heavy financial burden. Chairman Pryor and Council member Schweers spoke generally of the unfair burden of property taxes and by inference, their preference of some other way of raising revenue. (Of course, abolishing property taxes is an issue over which they have no control)

Council member Condon noted that property taxes did not fluctuate like a sales tax. If the County relied on the latter, it would have closed down in the present recession. This was an exaggeration one Council member said but more services certainly would have been curtailed.

Council member Rawle noted that home owners have received relief with a sales tax and a 15% tax cap. He also pointed out that a reversion to the old system left developers in a disadvantaged position. Property taxes on new structures were assessed at market values immediately. Old structures, if the old system was adopted, generally would have a lower tax burden making them more attractive to a buyer, or in the case of a commercial development, to a prospective tenant who under net lease terms, pick up the payment of the property tax.

Council member Rawle cast the only vote to send the resolution to Columbia.