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City Council, December 7

Budget for 2011 passes first reading
Council gives nod to franchising valet parking on public right of ways

Marc Knapp

The 2011 City budget was put to bed last night. It was not firmly tucked in. Council member Gregorie wanted to rip off the sheets and remake the bed. But we suspect that soothing words from CFO Bedard and Mayor Riley will allow the budget to peacefully repose without disturbance through subsequent readings.

We have already reported on the draft budget in two recent stories. Although total revenue and spending were down only slightly from the previous year, the City was hard tasked to achieve a balance without fee and property tax increases. There were spending cut backs, the most severe in personnel, and through early retirement. In the public hearing, I stated my belief that the budget was not austere enough. In my contracting business I have not seen any private sector activity in months. I think that next year will be tougher than 2010.

Council member Gregorie reading from a prepared speech was critical of the budget and in particular some of the cut backs related to social services- Red Cross, Black Expo, homelessness etc. He said that spending should be restored to prior levels and that staff should also be given a 1% across the board raise. He also said that funds should be used to pay down debt and to create a Rainy Day fund. To pay for all of this, the City should cut “operating costs” by 10%. His definition of operating costs was in our opinion vague and seemed to be the residual of total costs after subtracting wages and salaries. He estimated “operating costs" at $35 million. We think the Council member's request was unreal and colored by his long service with HUD.

CEO Bedard, when he rose to respond, was confused and exclaimed that this was the first he had heard of the Council member’s proposal. He disputed that the arithmetic was so easy. You could not make arbitrary cuts across the board, he said. For example, to cut fuel costs by 10% would imperil many essential services such as trash collection and police. And beside, some items such as Black Expo had not been cut. Funding was shifted to another part of the budget. The Mayor spoke in similar vein. It was agreed that Council member Gregorie should meet with CFO Bedard and staff to discuss his issues.

Council member White had a number of questions on budget items which were easily answered by CFO Bedard. He had no philosophical issues. But Council member Mallard did

Council member Mallard, following on a comment from Council member Reigel, said that not enough was being done to attract to new business to the City. “No new money is coming in”. We need an economic development policy, he loudly exclaimed. The City has no policy. North Charleston, the County and the State, have economic development committees, but the City doesn’t.

Predictably, the Mayor took issue with the Council member. Economic development is dealt with by the Department of Design Development and Preservation. As well, the Mayor is active in promoting development as is staff working under the Digital Corridor. The Mayor spoke of the success in attracting investment in Charleston and the greater Charleston area, adding that businesses locating in the Greater Charleston area bring benefits to Charleston itself.

Does Council member Mallard have a point? Possibly, but considering the make up of the City – largely urbanized or built up - the scope for attracting investment is limited to commercial rather than industry. Maybe the City should consolidate its efforts with the County. There would be both synergy and costs savings.

And as for the budget, Council members should indeed raise question over items. But out of courtesy to other Council members, questions on specific items should be first raised with staff rather than at a Council meeting. Staff could have easily answered the questions of Council member White. Council member Gregorie’s comments were more appropriate for the Council meeting. But why weren’t the Mayor and CFO Bedard first consulted. CFO Bedard did well in responding to many of the issues but he was hardly able to respond to the social issues raised. If Council member Gregorie truly wanted to influence the shape of the budget, he would have first consulted both the Mayor and CFO Bedard. That he didn’t strongly suggests he wanted an opportunity to grandstand, and before a TV camera.

Other items before Council last night were

  1. An amendment to insert the word “roadways” in an ordinance recently passed that prohibited skateboards, roller skates etc in commercial areas and school overlay districts on the Pensinsula. The word had been inadvertently left out of the original ordinance. It was approved with only Council member Alexander against. He thought the whole ordinance was draconian.
  2. An amendment of the City code to allow for the franchising of designated valet parking areas on public right of ways. The Mayor noted that this request had been made by a number of businesses and was thought as a way to attract visitors to the City who were daunted by the problems of finding parking.

Finally, I commented last night that despite the millions of dollars the City has spent on computerization of traffic lights, it has done nothing for the traffic flow on Highway 17 from about the intersection of Wesley Drive to Main Road. The lights never seem to be synchronized and traffic is always banked up from 2 pm to 7 pm. Such a comment probably is barely worth a mention in a report on a Council meeting, but I swear that Chief Mullen was nodding his head when I spoke, up and down and not sideways.

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