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County Council, August 21

Pay issue taken off agenda
Discussion on CRDA set for next Tuesday
Warwick Jones

Attendees at last night’s Finance and Economic Development Committee’ meetings were not only disappointed but also punished. There was no discussion or decision on raising the remuneration of Council members, or contributions to the Charleston Regional Development Alliance (CRDA), both very controversial issues. But attendees also had to wait through two executive sessions, which took up about half of the 3 hour meetings.

The issue of Council member remuneration was withdrawn from the agenda by Chairman Pryor who said that this was not the appropriate time for consideration. We wonder what is the appropriate time. The proposal was made over a month ago but discussion and a decision were deferred until Council Member Darby returned from an overseas trip and could be present. He was present last night. It was appropriate however for Council to discuss the proposed increases in remuneration for other elected officials – Coroner, Clerk of Court, et al. Three Council members (Summey, Darby and Chairman Pryor) were in favor of supporting the staff recommendations which entailed significant remuneration increases, but the remaining 6 Council members were opposed. They wanted to see more information, in particular, remunerations of officials in other jurisdictions so comparisons could made. Some also spoke out against the practice of longevity bonuses – where an incumbent received an automatic 5% increase on reelection. This effectively meant that a reelected official would receive 5% more than a newly elected official.

The issue of contributions to the CRDA was not on the agenda. Chairman Pryor did not want it there but some Council members, in particular Council member Condon did. Sparks flew in her confrontation with the Chair and possibly even more in the executive session that followed. But Chairman Pryor, when Council returned to the chamber at the conclusion of the executive session, announced that it would be on the agenda of the Council meeting on Tuesday evening.

Chairman Pryor has recently been a harsh critic of the Alliance. As well as questioning the high level of remuneration of its senior executive, he doubted that the results achieved by the Alliance justified the contributions made by the County. He thought the Alliance should focus only on drawing new investors and noted that the County had its own effective Economic Development team that could do much of what the Alliance did.

The Chair’s public assertions got the attention of the Post and Courier who rightly thought decisions on cutting funding lay with Council and not just the Chair.

We thought the P&C editorial was right to criticize the Chair for stepping out before Council consideration. But was his conclusion about the effectiveness of the Alliance misplaced? Charleston has attracted considerable investment in recent years, transforming the local economy. But who can take the credit? Some writers want to ascribe the success largely to the Alliance. But is this justified? Consider the investment by Boeing – it overshadows that of every other made in the County. It came with the encouragement and support of the State, the County, the Alliance, and not least the attributes of the County that were clearly apparent to Boeing. We don’t know the relative contribution of each of these- the entities or attributes – to Boeing’s final decision. But we very much doubt that Boeing’s decision rested largely on that of the Alliance.

We will wait to hear more when the issue of contribution to the CRDA is discussed at next Council meeting.

Greenbelts and funding took up a disproportionate amount of time at yesterday’s meeting. It was not only as to whether one of the projects should be approved. But Council members probed to understand how projects could be funded when ostensibly, there were few greenbelt funds left.

Firstly, Council approved 5 projects:

  • East Cooper Land Trust, $1.34 million, to buy 93.96 acres ( Thornhill Farms)

  • Edisto Island Open Land Trust, $216,000, to buy 12.4 acres (Sand Creek-Legacy Live Oak Park)

  • SC Battleground Trust, $829,000, to buy 17.3 acres (Church Flatts Camp)

  • Town of Ravenel, $800,000, to buy 6 acres (Little Lake Family Park)

  • St James Foundation, $617,454 from Rural funds and $200,000 from Urban Green Belt Funds for Gullah Cultural Center Greenbelt project

The draw on Greenbelt Funds of these projects is slightly over $4 million. The funds were to be drawn from those remaining from the 2011 issue of General Obligation Bonds and from the Greenbelt Operating Contingency. The latter was created at a time when there was doubt as to whether the half-cent sales tax receipts would be sufficient to meet the $3.2 billion tax target. From Staff comments, the target is likely to be met and the funds set aside in contingency available.

Council members were confused about the Operating Contingency funds and how they could be become available. And also, where was the $2.7 million coming from if Council were to approve the application by the Parks and Recreation Commission (PRC) to buy 638 acres from Mead Westvaco for a park near Ravenel. The tract was part of the 14,000 acres in the Development Agreement presently being negotiated with the County. These funds were also coming from Greenbelt Contingency, staff said. And staff also noted that if the PRC request were approved, it would be the end of the Greenbelt Program for all funds would be exhausted.

Both the County and Mead Westvaco have moved slowly in shaping the Development Agreement. The development is major and new for both parties and also introduces Form Based Zoning to the County. The slowness in shaping an agreement reflects caution and not apprehension, and a desire of both parties “to get it right”. Council wisely deferred any decision of the greenbelt purchase until the development agreement was signed. To extract the tract from the area in the Development Agreement now could be confusing, it concluded.

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