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County Council, March 3

County to “pull plug “on Chicora Life Center
Increase in Stormwater Management Fee seems likely
Warwick jones

It happened at last. The County terminated the agreement to lease space in the Chicora Life Center. The County planned to locate a number of health and social services in what was once a naval hospital. The owner of the structure was obliged to renovate the leased space before the County moved in, but fell well behind its obligations. The County agreed to move the deadlines on two occasions but satisfactory completion has still not been achieved. Council has clearly lost patience and perhaps faith in the owners of the building. Last night, as well as agreeing to terminate the agreement, the Finance Committee asked staff to look at other alternatives for relocating the services.

The decision of the Finance Committee was not unanimous. Council members Darby, Johnson and Pryor voted against the termination. Councilmembers Johnson and Darby asked for a few more months to allow the owners to complete the renovations, while Council member Darby spoke of the beneficial impact of such a development on the surrounding and impoverished area. The other Council members were unmoved. Council member Rawl was absent last night but considering comments when the issue was discussed in the past, almost certainly would have voted to terminate the lease, we think.

The decision to terminate the lease was made after an hour long executive session. No details of the discussion were revealed when the Committee members returned to the chamber. Virtually the only comments were those of Council member Darby and Johnson. Beside those noted earlier, Council member Darby opined that the decision could cost the County $15 -$30 million in damages.

Without knowing all the details, it is hard to make a judgment on the issue. The owners of the Chicora Life Center clearly have failed to fulfil their obligations under the lease agreement. But evident from an earlier Finance Committee meeting (See County Council, October 9, 2015 for the details), the owners thought there were extenuating circumstances. It was also clear at that meeting and after the owners made a presentation, that some members of Council were ready then to terminate the agreement.

Is the County at risk? We don’t know. It has competent legal staff and if there were significant risks, there would have been a warning. The County certainly gave the owners considerable leeway to complete renovations. And if there are to be suits, could the County clam damages because of the delay in completion?

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There were also two other issues before the Committees last night, The first was before the Administration Policy/Rules Committee and related to setting the requirements for application by Outside Agencies for County funding. The proposed Community Investment Policy was designed to replace the Outside Agencies policy and better formalize the requirements and to remove politics from the decision making. In many respects, the proposed policy resembles the policy set in place to guide allocations of the Accommodation Tax – requiring audited accounts, record keeping, registration of the charitable entity, purpose, etc. It also designated a specific time for the submission of applications.

We don’t think that any member of Council had an issue with the purpose of what was proposed. But there was an issue as to what constituted an “outside agency”. And should a contribution be made to agencies with political ties? The local Chamber of Commerce was noted as being an agency. But it endorsed political candidates. For this reason, it and similar agencies should be excluded from grants.

Staff was directed to take another look at the proposed policy and tighten it, particularly in defining the outside agencies to which it would apply. Staff also noted that allocations came out of the General Fund. Council member Schweers acknowledged that recipients may serve worthy causes, but he was not happy for the County to support charities. This should be left to the private sector and not County tax payers. He supported the proposed policy change though he may oppose any allocation from the General Fund for outside agencies.

And then there was the proposed increase in the Stormwater Management Utility Fee. The Finance Committee was asked to increase the annual fee from $36 to $58. Some members of the Committee were unhappy about the size of the increase. Because little time had been given to committee members and affected municipalities to consider the issue, a decision was deferred.

But there was more to consider than just the increase. The Finance Committee endured a long presentation by a consultant that indicated the new requirements by DHEC on Stormwater management. Although the County had met existing requirements, it would be subject to new and more encompassing requirements in future. To meet these requirements, and some, the County needed to raise its fee. That proposed would still be below most of the other counties and municipalities in the state. Staff noted that revenues under the existing fee would be sufficient to fund cost up until December 2017.

There was some lengthy discussion as to what the Stormwater Fee could cover and the line drawn between funding by the Stormwater Fee and that for Public Works. There is a line but we confess after an hour-long executive session and long discussions over other issues, we could not maintain an interest. We think Chairman Summey was fighting fatigue too. He dismissed the last item on the Agenda, the FY 2016 Financial review, as unnecessary. Everything was going well and there were no surprises. That may not be what he said, but it was his meaning. And we were all grateful for his action.

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