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The Watch


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County Council, July 24

Greenbelt amendments approved, but Council divided
Structure of CARTA’s board questioned
Warwick Jones

It was the worst decision made in my 10 years on Council! This was the opinion of Council member Schweers on the decision by Council to change the allocation of greenbelt funding. The Council member was an original member of the Greenbelt Advisory Board, and a strong supporter of land conservation. Under the first half cent sales tax, greenbelt funding went 70% to rural projects and 30% to urban. Under the second half-cent sales tax, and approved last night, funding will be split evenly between rural and urban projects.

Before Council last night was the proposed amendments to the County’s Greenbelt Plan. The first Plan was implemented some 14 years ago following the approval the first half-cent sales tax. The Greenbelt Advisory Board (GAB) was formed at that time to develop the plan. The GAB met a number of times over the last year to consider changes in the Plan, preparatory to receiving funding from the second half-cent sales tax. Its recommendations were reviewed by the Finance Committee over a month ago but no vote was taken. The proposed amendments came to Council last night.

The changes relating to the Greenbelt Plan were controversial and the Consultant to the County, Mr. Chuck Flink gave a detailed presentation outlining the success of the past program at the Finance Committee meeting at the end of May. There were a lot of questions and probably all Council members felt uncomfortable voting without further consideration.

In our view, there were three major issues about the new plan

  1. The 50/50 allocation of funds to rural/urban projects. It was 70/30 in the first plan
  2. The allocations to the specific urban areas. It was left unchanged from the first plan. Allocations were made on the basis of population of each municipality
  3. The approval of grants initially to be determined by a GAB sub-committee supplemented by expert where necessary in finance, valuation, banking etc. In the first plan, the Greenbelt Bank board approved rural grants and the Urban Grants Review Board, considered urban grants.

The allocation of funds between rural and urban was an issue for the GAB. The 50/50 split was approved with a 1 vote majority. Many members wished to leave the ratio 70/30.

It was also clear that there was a division on the Finance Committee at the May meeting. Council members Moody and Pryor were outspoken of the need for more urban funding. It was argued that the original program had met its goal and it was only right that the urban areas receive more funding. The Council members also sought the approval to fund minor developments in urban parks such as toilets and water fountains. Council members Schweers was strongly in favor of the old split noting the intention of voters the first referendum. Council member Sass did not specifically support the proposed changes but he did note the wishes of the public were strongly supportive of rural projects.

Councilmembers made the same arguments last night with Council member Qualey joining those supporting the retention of the old funding allocation. Strangely in our view, there was no discussion about the proposed changes to the approval process and the expanded role of the GAB.

Supporters of the high rural allocation were well represented among those attending last night’s meeting. All of the 11 rising to address the greenbelt issue, favored the high rural allocation. Many referred to the need to preserve African American settlements which were being threatened by development.

In the final vote, Council approved the GAB’s recommendations. Those in favor were Chairman Rawl and Council members Summey, Pryor, Darby and Moody. Those opposed were Council members Schweers, Qualey, Sass and Johnson.

We thought the discussion over the 2019 CARTA budget was interesting. But it was not the budget itself but what followed.

At the Finance Committee meeting last Thursday, Council member Schweers spoke at length about the unsatisfactory nature of the CARTA board. The majority of its members were politicians or representatives of politicians who had little experience in the running of a utility. There was a need for professionals, perhaps even paid professionals on the board. He noted all the Mayors of the municipalities in the County and the Chairman of the County were on the Board. That they have the time and interest to deal with the issues of CARTA were debatable. He wondered about the future of CARTA while its board members were appointed as at present.

We sympathize with the Council member’s concerns. But his comment was lengthy and infringed on Council member Qualey’s patience. He requested a stop, Council moved on with its business and Council member Schweer’s concerns went nowhere, at least it seemed so.

To our surprise, Council member Qualey spoke strongly at last night’s meeting in support of Council member Schweer’s comments. He too would like something done. The upshot, County staff was to look into the issue to see what steps be taken to effect changes on the composition of the CARTA board. There was no discussion as to how the Board should be composed and members elected. And there is the obstacle that State legislation presently determines the broad makeup of the Board.

Changing State legislation is a challenge. And almost certainly, every Mayor of every municipality in the County will oppose any change. But as Council member Schweers might argue, the history of CARTA does not lend support to the present Board structure. But the issue needs to be discussed.

Incidentally, the CARTA budget was approved. But it did not look good for the HOP service implemented a few months ago. The service, a park and ride service for hospitality workers in the City of Charleston, has proved more costly and less utilized than projected. At the present level of service, its deficit would be around a million dollars a year. Management was anticipating sizable contributions from members of the hospitality industry, but this anticipation was forlorn. The future of the HOP will be discussed at the CARTA board meeting in August and closure is a possible option.

The author is a member of the GAB, and a proxy for Council member Schweers on the CARTA Board.