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County Council, March 20

County seeks to restore State funding levels
Issues continue over land purchase at Bees Ferry landfill
Warwick Jones

Finance Committee members were not happy after the staff presentation last night. The message conveyed by staff was that Columbia was stiffing the County, and every other County in the state, big dollars. For Charleston County, the blow is an estimated $3 2 million for this fiscal year. The accumulation since 2009 is an estimated $17.1 million.

So how does this come about? The State pays every county an amount each year designed to cover the costs of state-mandated spending. It does this through the Local Government Fund (LGF). State Law, passed in 1991, set the allocation to the LGF at 4.5% of the State’s General Fund. The allocation is then distributed to the Counties by formula.

Back in 2009 when the economy was wilting and revenues were lower, the State decided to ignore the provisions relating to the amounts distributed to the LGF. (“Ignore” is probably not the right word. It enacted legislation to enable the avoidance of a full provision). According to staff, the State allocated Charleston County $17.9 million from the LGF in 2009 opposed to the $19.2 million statutory obligation. This represented a shortfall of $1.3 million. And it got worse in subsequent years ranging from a shortfall of $3.7 million in 2010, $2.6 million in 2013 and an estimated $3.2 million this year.

Council members were clearly unhappy with the revelation. Council member Schweers commented that the cut backs imposed by the state in 2009 and 2010 were perhaps justified by the tough times. But as staff said and Council member Schweers acknowledged, State revenues had increased 3 years in a row since and the State had done nothing to restore the annual appropriation.

Adding to the indignation was the staff’s estimate that the actual cost of implementing State mandates is much higher than the revenues derived from the State. In 2010, staff estimated that the County’s cost of providing these mandated services was over $30 million. Funds received from the State that year from the LGF amounted to only $14.7 million – effectively a more than 50% shortfall.

Compared with projected revenues of $194 million in the County’s General Fund this year, the cut backs are not budget-blowing. But they can make a big difference. Indeed, they could be the difference between a tax increase or not. The Finance Committee asked legal to draft a letter/resolution to the Association of Counties to garner support to address the issue. They also asked that Council members put pressure on elected state representatives and senators.

We confess surprise at the revelation by Staff and more surprise that it is only now that some action is being considered. The State is wrong in what it is doing and the inaction of elected representatives and senators from the County is inexcusable. We would expect the local media to be vocal about this issue.

There was another presentation by staff last night – relating to the Cooper River Bridge Run. Essentially it related to security. Simply, there will be a lot of it. Officials are mindful of what happened at the Boston Marathon and other terrorist linked events. They are taking precautions and making provisions.

There were a number of speakers from the County agencies. All remarked on the high degree of cooperation between the agencies, the County, the City of Charleston and Town of Mount Pleasant. There was also cooperation with the State and Federal agencies. As one speaker noted, there would be about 400 personnel with security and EMS responsibilities. Consolidated Dispatch would also maintain a “station” at the Maritime Center. And as one speaker noted and with which we concur, hopefully the services of all these folk will not be needed.

One way or other, the issue of expanding the Bees Ferry landfill came up. But we cannot say how it will be resolved. Before Council was a letter from the County Consultant saying that it had vetted the qualifications of those who wished to contract for landfill engineering and that it recommended Terracon. The letter was presented to the Committee just prior to the meeting. Council member Schweers objected saying he had no time to review the material before him, presumably more than just the letter. There was also a page missing in the submitted material. None of this material was in the public information package.

The Chair and staff noted that time was running out. Preparation of plans and permitting would take over a year and the County ran the risk of not have a cell in place to take land fill in 18 months or so. Decisions had to be made now.

And then there was the issue of the land purchase as well. The County planned/considered the purchase of the 70 acre lot adjoining Bees Ferry land fill. The purchase price was $6.5 million and funding was to be part provided $2.2 million from Greenbelt Funds. The land needed to be rezoned before it could be used as part of the landfill and this would need the concurrence of the City of Charleston. Mayor Riley was reported as saying that the support of the neighborhoods would be critical in the City’s decision.

So then there was discussion of a contract for the purchase but with contingencies, a comment that the land owner had offers from developers and time was of the essence for it as well as the County, and Council member Schweers’ objection that greenbelt funds be used for the purchase.

The subject is to come before Council on Tuesday night. Hopefully there will be more clarity.

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