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County Council, February 25

Council opens its purse
Few seem concerned
Warwick Jones

One wonders! We are in the midst of a major recession and significant recovery seems a long way off. The County Administrator is signaling a hard year ahead and the strong possibility that a millage increase will be necessary for the General Fund. But at the meeting of the Economic Development Committee there seemed little hesitation in signing off on borrowings of Trident Technical College (TTC), or questions as to where $155 million was coming from to finance road improvements related to the Boeing expansion.

TTC plans a new building for its school of nursing and allied health. To meet the County’s share of the cost, the millage rate in the County’s Debt Service Fund will be increased by 0.6. The decision followed the agreement to move ahead on new road projects to alleviate traffic congestion around the Airport following the build up of production at the new Boeing Plant.

The funding of the airport roads has not yet been decided and some of the cost could be borne by the State and Federal agencies. The Committee recommended work begins on design, planning and construction of those improvements that could be made immediately. Staff was also instructed to investigate funding options for all of the projects and to begin preliminary engineering and permitting for the major roads.

The Post and Courier ran a full story on the proposed road development around the airport, complete with diagrams. Suffice for us to say, apart from improvements of existing roads, there will be two new major roads constructed, to link I 526 and New Dorchester Road, and Aviation Road and Ashley Phosphate Road. The cost of the projects is estimated at $100 million and $50 million respectively.

The estimated cost of the immediate improvements is $5 million. The Boeing Plant is expected to be up and in full production by 2013, and these improvements will alleviate though not remove the likely congestion at many road intersections. However, the new roads should! In 2020, presumably when the new roads are completed, all intersections within the proscribed airport area are projected to have Levels of Service above D. Only two intersections, on Ashley Phosphate Road, are projected are expected to have E or F (failing) ratings.

TTC needs $30 million for new building
Despite the severity of the times, the Committee agreed to meet the request of TTC. Council member Schweers expressed strong reservations about the request but was not on the Economic Development Committee and could not vote . Of the Committee, Council members Thurmond and McKeown voted against the request with Chairman Pryor and Council members Summey and Rawl for.

TTC President Thornley made a speech that was acknowledged as eloquent and persuasive. Particularly persuasive was the fact that there was capacity for some 1000 students taking degrees in nursing or allied health but some 4000 applications. At the same time there was a crying need from local hospitals and health care entities for these graduates. In these times of high unemployment, it was a waste that so many were denied an opportunity. (We presume that the high number of applications reflects the large increase in the unemployment rate in the last year or so, We would ask that when economic conditions return to normal, are applications likely to remain so high?)

President Thornley said that the proposed new building would cost $30 million of which Charleston County’s share would be $18 million. The balance would come from Berkeley and Dorchester Counties. Normal sources of funding, essentially from State Agencies, had dried up and TTC was now turning to the Counties. She noted that county funding of community colleges was common and added that the economic benefit to the County would great, estimated at over $40 million a year.

We don’t know how the economic benefit was calculated but Council member Summey noted that Trident Medical Center in North Charleston wanted to expand but was restrained by the lack of nurses and other trained personnel. It was the largest property tax payer in the City and an increase in the supply of health care workers would facilitate expansion, and presumably higher property tax payouts.

President Thornley said that TTC would take care of raising the money needed for the building if the County would agree to meet the debt servicing costs on $18 million. After all, this would require an increase in the County Debt Service Account millage rate of only 0.6, equal to $3.60 on a house valued at $150,000.

Council member Schweers acknowledged the merit of President Thornley’s argument but noted the severity of the times. Citizens were not in any mood for any tax increase, whatever the merits. This was an opinion also expressed by Council member Thurmond.

Council member Rawl was contemptuously dismissive of these views. If the County could spend $100 million on a new jail, how it reject a $30 million education facility?

Nobody attempted to answer this question but they could have said the County had no option. In the Council member’s world, was it a lesser sin to stuff 1800 or so inmates into a building designed for less than half that number than to force local students in these unusual times to move further afield to find a position in a suitable school? And then again, the economic climate is now vastly different to that of 3-4 years ago when the prison expansion was planned.

Interestingly, the County Administrator recommended that the TTC request be rejected. At last night’s meeting he again told Council members that times were very tough and opined that even after the cost cutting measures planned or effected, there was a likely need for a millage increase for next year in the General Fund.

The actual motion by Council member Rawl was “Approve the request for the $18 million of bonded indebtedness and that said bonded indebtedness will be paid for by funds attributable to Trident Tech, so if we raise the millage, the millage will be attributable to Trident Tech.” We are unclear whether the County will raise the funds or allow TTC to do so

The issue will now go to full Council on Tuesday night. But we do not expect a change in the decision.

And a request for funding for a new non profit
And then there was the request of the Charleston Promise Neighborhood (CPN). At times it again looked like Council member Schweers versus the rest of Council. He did have some support from Council member Condon who was not sure what the non profit was planning to do.

CPN is yet another non profit in the making. It aims is to improve the lot of those that live in a 9.2 square mile area which encompasses the Eastside and the Neck area. The spokesman, Mr. William Hewitt said the organization was planning the same programs that transformed the education process in Harlem, New York City, beginning in the 1980's. He had asked North Charleston, the City of Charleston and the County School Board to also contribute $50,000 initially. The City of Charleston has approved the request. He indicated that he expected to be able to raise $200,000 from private sources as matching grants. In subsequent years, he asked more from the governing entities - $100,000 in the second year and $150,000 in the third. The money would be used for start-up funds and to pay for a full time director.

Council member Condon logically asked what exactly did CPN plan to do? There was little indication given in the documents before her. Mr. Hewitt mentioned preschool help, mentoring, child minding, adult education etc. The Council member later told Mr. Hewitt that he had done a “poor job” in telling Council what was planned, and it seemed that the tasks that CPN proposed to undertake were more the preserve of the School district.

Chairman Pryor suggested that amount be provided from CBDG or Home Funds, sourced by HUD. Wait on, said Council member Schweers; we have a Committee who makes recommendations for the allocation of these funds. We are bypassing them if we meet this request. Besides who are we to say that CPN is more deserving than other applicants? Staff noted that applications for CBDG and Home funds had already closed and the final allocations were being determined by the Committee. There were requests for $9.3 million but funds available amounted to only $1.3 million.

The Chairman then recommended that the initial $50,000 request come out of the Contingency Fund of the County. The funds would only be released if the matching funds indicated by Mr. Hewitt were forthcoming. Only Council member Schweers voted against the request. Council members Darby and Thurmond were absent and Council member McKeown abstained.

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