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City Council, May 24

Speaker ejected during Citizens Participation
Is West Ashley really unfairly treated when it comes to funding?
Warwick Jones

Sometimes you wonder. Last night’s meetings took up nearly 5 hours. There were no items of great importance that merited long discussion. But long discussion there was, discussion dominated by only a few Council members. Their speeches, sometimes defying logic but relying on repetition to give weight to their arguments, were long. Oh, for a time limit on Council members’ speeches, similar to that imposed during Citizens Participation!

We’ve never seen it before. But it happened last night. At the request of the Mayor, a speaker in Citizens Participation was removed from the chamber. The citizen, from Hilton Head, spoke disparagingly of the Convention and Visitors Bureau and Helen Hill, its head. He called for an audit of the organization. But he went too far when he described Helen Hill as a liar, and the Mayor asked him to step away.

The speaker did not comply and the Mayor took away the microphone. The Mayor said that the speaker did not have evidence for his accusation and his speech was not in accord with the practice and decorum of Council. The standoff continued with the speaker demanding his right to speak and the Mayor denying him the opportunity. Ultimately, the speaker was escorted out of the chamber by two police officers.

Interestingly, at previous Council meeting, the Mayor was taken to task for letting a citizen describe City staff as “snakes”. Council member Waring suggested that the citizen’s speech should have been terminated by the Mayor. If citizens make such disparaging and unproven comments in future, the Mayor should terminate their speeches. The Mayor agreed and if we recall right, he suggested that the Council member say something if he thought a citizen should be called to order. Council member Waring may have been preparing to say something last night, but the Mayor needed no urging.
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Council members Moody and Waring, and perhaps some of the other Council members, feel that West Ashley is a neglected part of the City. They feel that for many years, the area has been denied its rightful share of funding. And the corollary is that the Peninsula has received more than its fair share. Some meetings ago, both Council members sought financial details of the funds received by the City from the State Accommodation Tax, the City Accommodation Tax, and the Hospitality Fee. They specifically asked what amount of the total funds went to West Ashley.

Staff came back with a partial answer last night. The total funds received from 2002 through 2017 were $311 million. In 2017, the total was just over $31 million. And what had been spent on West Ashley? Only $5 million over the last 15 years! Shock and shame, cries Council member Waring.

But let’s put it into perspective. The $5 million related only to special projects. State law proscribes where the funds derived from the taxes must go. As staff noted, the General Fund of the City receives the largest allocation and spending out of the General Fund is spread throughout the City – police, fire services etc. And of course, West Ashley is a beneficiary. Importantly, the balance of funds is supposed to be used to support tourist related activities. As the Peninsula is the greatest draw for tourists – historic district, restaurants, Spoleto, Gaillard Center, SEWE, hotels, etc. it generates most of the tax and fee money. it thus seems logical that the Peninsula receives the major share of the distributable funds. We note that the CVB is also a beneficiary of funding.

With the ascendancy of Mayor Tecklenberg and the creation of the West Ashley Revitalization Commission, West Ashley is getting more attention. Being home to Charlestowne Landing and now some old Plantations, West Ashley certainly should receive a share of the taxes and fee. But the share should only be modest compared to what rightfully should go to the Peninsula.

The staff presentation also referred to the effort by the City to amend the legislation which defined the uses of funds derived from the taxes. The City wants to be able to fund draining and flooding mitigation which is presently not permitted. We are not familiar with the state process. The issue is being considered but the funding for draining and flooding will not be allowed to exceed 30% of available funds, and the amendment will be good only for 10 years. And there is a good chance that there will be no amendment.
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We got the impression that some Council members were anxious to move ahead and approve the Quit Claim deed which would convey the notional Hayne Street to the owner of the properties on either side. (Hayne Street, or actually the Right of Way, bisects the large parking lot on Market Street). The issue has been before Council for over a year now and some members thought it time for a decision.

But Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association (HANA) and others thought that another but not lengthy deferral was necessary. HANA and the developer, who is proposing to construct a hotel on the site, have come to an agreement on many issues. But they still have not agreed on the number of hotel rooms and the height of the proposed structure, in our view, two of the most important issues.

Mayor Tecklenberg spoke in favor of the hotel development noting that the developer had agreed to dedicate at least 5700 sq.ft to an arcade along the notional Hayne Street that would be accessible to the public. It has also agreed to provide space for electrical equipment that would allow the installation of underground wiring in the area, pay the equivalent of $3.40 a square foot of developed space for Affordable Housing, and allow the completion of the drainage improvements along Market Street.

Council approved the deferral, but we suspect there will be not be another
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And for the record, there were two zoning issues that took up disproportionate amount of time. The first was a rezoning of a .288 acre lot, to Mixed Use/Work Force Housing and to a 4 Old City Height District. The rezoning would allow the developer to build 10 dwelling units of which two would be Affordable Housing. Under the existing zoning, only 8 units could be built. The City was the owner of the property.

Council member Waring was incensed. The developer was getting financial benefit from the proposed rezoning. He should pay the City more than what had been previously agreed to. It did not seem to matter to the Council member, that the consideration had been determined some time ago as part of the Dereef Park litigation settlement. To renege on that deal would reopen the litigation process. And besides, the consummation of the deal awaited the completion of shaft sinking related to City drainage. On completion, the property would be conveyed to the developer and at that time he could apply for a rezoning. The rezoning request before Council was simply a move preparatory for development. There was nothing sinister.

We thought solution was clear and that Council should approve the rezoning. The vote was 7 to 6 in favor indicating that some did not share our view.

The other zoning matter related to the Folly Road overlay. Originally, the City, the City of James Island and the County had agreed on zoning districts. The County decided to amend the boundary of one area but failed to note it on a map, or was it the text?? And then there was some misinformation from the County. We won’t attempt to detail the discussion as the confused Council members debated at how to bring the ordinance into line. But the vote was effectively to send the matter back to the Planning Commission to work out. Phew!!!
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And finally, the City is considering suing the makers and distributors of opioids. It has incurred expenses of between $50,000 and $100,000 in law enforcement and other areas over the last 3 years related to opioid use. It plans to retain the law firm of Capers Barr who will act at no cost to the City but on a 25% contingency basis. No vote taken but Council member Seekings was uneasy. He sought further information noting that it was a wide range of entities that might be sued and some may indeed be his clients. Council member Seekings is a lawyer.