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Council Lifts County Wide Hiring Freeze – Controversial Rezoning Request Fails

 – By Tiffani Ireland –

In a 2-1 vote at their regularly scheduled monthly meeting, Tuesday, Aug. 6, (Councilwoman Genia Blackwell was absent and Councilman Dorn left mid-meeting) Edgefield County Council passed a measure to lift the county-wide hiring freeze that has been in place since May 2011.  Originally instituted to save County funds and provide for budget shortfalls, Administrator Lynn Strom said that while the measure did help to save some money for the County, it worked best in regards to retiring employees, as they gave advance notices of leave.  However, she said the measure became a burden when departments were faced with employees who abruptly left their positions and filling those positions became significantly delayed while waiting to appear before Council for lifts in the policy.  Councilwoman Betty Butler, the dissenting vote on this matter, said she liked the oversight the freeze gave Council in regards to filling different positions.

A request to rezone property located on Hwy 121 from General Development to Industrial Development failed as it resulted in a split vote; Council members Dean Campbell and Rodney Ashcraft voted in favor and Council members Norman Dorn and Betty Butler opposed the measure.  The request, made by the property owners, stated the purpose of rezoning was to make the property more marketable.  Administrator Strom reminded Council a change in the status would not protect the property or make it only available to agriculture since its current zoning allows for commercial and some manufacturing.  The proposed change was recommended by the Planning Commission who took into account the surrounding areas, which is mostly zoned General Development and on which a manufacturing business is already located.  Councilwoman Butler stated she was concerned about protecting and educating surrounding property owners regarding this proposal.  Chairman Campbell countered that protections in the form of previously passed ordinances and state laws already exist to protect the surrounding properties.  With its failure to pass, this measure is expected to be revisited at a future meeting.

Council unanimously decided to purchase from Georgia-based company GMASS new computer assisted mass appraisal software for the Assessor’s Office.  This purchase was provided for in the FY13-14 budget.  GMASS was the lowest of three bids with $64,000.  This amount will include the software and its integration as well as annual maintenance costs for 5 years.

An ordinance for a referendum to be held on Election Day, Nov. 2, 2014, in order to change Council member terms from the current two year terms to staggered four year terms passed its first reading in a 3-1 vote; Councilman Dorn voted negatively to this measure.  Councilwoman Butler reminded Council that this measure has failed numerous times before but said she felt the people of the county should be given the chance to decide this matter.

Council discussed a possible referendum to place a Capital Project Sales Tax on the ballot in Nov. 2014.  This referendum would allow voters to decide if a 1% sales tax should be added to all items, including gas but excluding unprepared food, purchased within Edgefield County.  Administrator Strom gave a presentation outlining this proposal that was described as needed to help fund capital projects in the County.  As she explained, only specific projects, which would be listed on the ballot along with their costs, could be funded by this tax.  In this way, Strom said voters would know exactly how the money from this tax would be spent.  The projects that would be chosen would not be proposed by Council but rather by a committee of six members, three of whom would be appointed by Council, two would be appointed by the town of Edgefield, and one by the town of Johnston.  (The awarding of appointments to the towns was done by a state formula based on population.)   The committee would be required to hold public hearings for input from citizens, and they would then present their recommended projects to Council.  Council would then follow the necessary steps to approve those projects before they could be placed on the ballot.  Strom said the sales tax could only be in effect for a maximum of 8 years or until all of the listed funds were provided.  At that point, the tax would come off the books.  She also stated the tax is projected to generate $900,000 a year.  Although Councilwoman Blackwell was not present, Strom read a prepared statement from her in which she reminded residents that Council is not raising taxes; only voters will be able to do that through the referendum.  She further reminded that this was just a discussion about forming a committee to recommend projects and invited the public to reach out to her with their ideas.  While not saying he opposed the measure, Councilman Ashcraft did say he was not comfortable with a tax that lasted 8 years especially if is not working.  “I just like an exit door,” he said.  However, he was assured that 8 was only a maximum and that a lesser time frame could be set, but that would be dependent on projects and their potential costs.  Since this was a discussion, no vote was taken, but Council is moving forward and is expected to present nominees for a possible committee at their Sept. meeting.  (The Advertiser’s previous coverage of this matter can be found in our July, 31 edition or at our website under ECC Chairman’s Update.)

Council all agreed to pass on first reading a measure to deed the driveway of Gilgal Baptist Church to the church so they will have space needed for additions at the facility.  The road had previously been a state maintained road, but at the request of a resolution passed on Apr. 2, 2013, the state turned the property over to the County with the intent being the County would then deed the property to the church.

In old business, Council unanimously passed an ordinance that changes the rate currently paid to jurors serving in the Magistrate Court.  In compliance with state law, jurors will now receive $10/day plus mileage.

Council heard from guest speaker Roger LeDuc, Administrator for the town of Edgefield, who discussed the proposal of a Tax Increment Finance District (TIFD) for the town.  In regards to this proposal, LeDuc said he is asking the County and the school board to defer $500,000 over 15 years to fund improvement projects in this finance district.  LeDuc was quick to point out that this does not raise taxes, it simply will defer funds already being collected in these areas and repurposing them for public improvement projects in this designated area.  LeDuc said the current assess value in the TIFD is $529,000.  He further said the town is taking the greatest risk with this proposal especially if there is no increase in tax assessments and no properties are sold. LeDuc cited properties in this area that were deteriorating and in need of improvements.  He said the town feels that without improvements to this area to allow for marketing opportunities, the town will continue to decline.  Chairman Campbell advised Council to be prepared to vote on this issue “in a month or two.”

In her closing comments to Council, Strom said lights have been installed around the track at Bettis Academy.  She further advised Council that the County was awarded a grant for $79,543 to fund a school resource officer at Merriwether Middle School.  This is a 10% matching grant which will be met by the school board.  Strom also told Council she has compiled a list of 6 possible sites, including pros and cons of each, for the location of an animal shelter.  She invited Council to set aside time in which they could visit the sites as a group to evaluate each location.

In his closing remarks, Chairman Campbell, with Council’s input, set the date for the animal shelter site visits as Sept. 27 at 5:00 pending that date is suitable for the two absent Council members.  Council will tour the sites and then return to the chambers for discussion regarding the sites.  The public was also invited to tour these sites with Council.  Campbell also reminded Council of the Edgefield County Summit that will be held Sept. 20 for half a day to discuss economic development and strategic planning.

Before adjourning, Council did go into executive session.  Upon their return, Council voted unanimously not to appeal the court’s decision to award K&H Development Company multi-lot discounts at Mt. Vintage.