County Council goes through busy agenda and looks for help

Two Barnwell County Councilmen headed to Washington, D.C. mid-March to put the county on the minds and in the eyes of state legislative leaders.

Councilmen Lowell Jowers and Thomas Williams discussed the trip during the April 7 Barnwell County Council meeting.

"It was a good trip and it was mainly just to show our faces," said Jowers. "Other counties are doing it, so we decided to do the same thing."

Jowers and Williams traveled as part of a delegation from the SouthernCarolina Alliance with other council members from the four-county region.

"The purpose of the trip was to help the area in economic development," said Williams.

Williams and Jowers met with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett.

"The purpose of the trip was to help the area in economic development," said Williams.

The councilmen spoke to the lawmakers on subjects such as federal stimulus money, a four-lane highway for Barnwell County and economic opportunities at the Savannah River Site.

"Barnwell County has to take advantage of what is going on at the SRS," said Williams on the $1.6 billion that will create about 3,000 jobs for the region.

Long-term plans for SRS include building an energy park on the Barnwell-Aiken county line, a move Barnwell County needs to be ready to take advantage of, Williams said.

Graham asked Jowers and Williams to put together a list of three items that were most important to them, said Jowers.

One item is a four-lane highway.

Currently, the Southern Carolina Alliance is doing a feasibility study on where the best place to put a four-lane would be, said Williams.

Both Jowers and Williams reported they walked away from the meetings feeling positive and with a mission accomplished.

"We need to do everything we can to make sure these people don't forget about us," said Williams. "If we come up with ideas - they will help us."

No taxpayer money was used to fund the trip; it was paid for by corporate citizens, said both Jowers and Williams.

The following business was also conducted at the April 7 Barnwell County Council meeting:

• Approved Barnwell County Hospital to go to a lending institution and secure an approximatly $800,000 loan based on the hospital's revenue and financial status.

The hospital needs the extra money because it has to pay back money to the CMS (Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services) that it was given in earlier payments through Medicare.

"We thought the money we were receiving were accurate amounts," said Mary Wisner, the hospital's chief executive officer.

That's because Medicare recently changed regulations for how in-patients are classified, said Wisner.

The new classification methods have led to more patients being classified as out- patients at BCH, said Wisner.

Out-patients bring in far less money through Medicare, Wisner said.

However, the hospital has been receiving PIP (periodic interim payments) based on its past volume of in-patients, she said.

PIP is a Medicare program that makes periodic payments to hospitals based on past trends of the volume of in-patients hospitals have admitted. BCH stopped PIP payments April 1 when the hospital board voted to end it and begin a more traditional billing system using the exact numbers and classifications of patients.

"We will now be reimbursed by what we submit," said Wisner.

Complicating matters more, RAC (recovery audit contractors) - the agency Medicare hired to audit in-patient and out-patient classifications- has retroactively reviewed patient classifications stretching back to 2003 and made hospitals pay back misclassifications.

The South Carolina Hospital Association just lost a lawsuit against the RACs April 9, Wisner said.

So far, the Medicare regulations have led to a total of $28,000,000 that South Carolina hospitals have to pay back, she said.

"All hospitals have been impacted by this . . . hospitals are going out of business because of it," said Wisner.

Wisner is hoping a bond from a lending institution will have a lower interest rate than one issued by CMS with a 11.3 percent rate.

If that plan doesn't work, council approved the hospital can issue a bond through the county within the next 60-90 days, said Barnwell County Hospital Chief Financial Officer Al Altman.

• Gave first reading of the 2009-10 fiscal year county budget.

Barnwell Councilman Keith Sloan said budget meetings will start this month.

"We have serious issues with the budget," said Sloan, noting there is a budget shirtfall in excess of $1,000,000.

County documents show the fiscal year 2009-10 budget to be $12,713,629.

Projected revenues are $1,068, 505 less than the fiscal year 2008-09 expenses that totalled $13,782,134 according to the document.

• Approved an economic development fund request.

The request - a committed $125,000 in Atlantic Compact funds to be used in the final stages of the Williston-Elko Community Resource Center within one year - was approved.

Councilman Freddie Houston, who heads the non profit committee to bring the $2.5 million building to Williston, recused himself from the voting.

Atlantic Compact funds were upfront fees New Jersey and Connecticut paid South Carolina to reserve the space to bury low-level radioactive waste.

Councilman Travis Black said the funds are for economic development and should be used for it.

But Sloan said economic development is in "the eyes of the beholder" and providing recreational opportunities for residents enhances a community and can cut crime which are factors in luring industry.

Barnwell County Administrator Pickens Williams Jr. said Compact funds can also be used for public facilities.

The request was approved in a roll call vote with Black and Barnwell County Chairman Joe Smith voting against it.

The money will not be released until all the funding or the majority of the work for the center is completed within a year.

"They will not get it until everything is in place and it can only be used up to that point (one year)," said Williams.

• Gave first reading of an ordinance to amend the rules of procedure.

Two proposed changes raising councilmen comments were extending the length of council chairman from one year to two years and developing a science, technology and nuclear regulatory standing committee.

"We're in the heart of nuclear country," said Sloan.

But Houston wondered about the need for such a committee.

He said council works with SouthernCarolina Alliance and the Economic Development Committee closely on nuclear industry matters.

Chairman Smith said that county zoning ordinances prohibit any new nuclear industry from coming into the county.

However, Sloan said a nuclear industry could come to the county with council's approval.

"It's not to determine if an industry can come into the county; it's to give the council more direct input to issues that can can affect those industries," he said.

Williams suggested the proposed changes should be talked about more in government committee so the matters could be discussed more thoroughly.

• Passed the first reading to provide a fee-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement for the Dixie-Narco Corporation.

Dixie-Narco in Williston is expected to expand it operations in the next 14 months by hiring about 500 workers and another 500 more in the next five years.

• Approved the use of $25,000 in capital improvement funds to cleanup and repair a part of the Barnwell County courthouse suffering from rot and mildew damage.

• Passed a resolution to adopt a "Red Flag Policy" that targets identity theft protection.

New federal regulations have to be in place by May 1 for institutions who gather social security numbers, said Williams, the county administrator.

• Approved the Barnwell County Election Commission to pursue a grant for a handicap-accessible parking space on Pechman Street in Barnwell.

The space would have a ramp which would allow easily access to the voter registration office, said Williams.

• Recognized Alice Martin for her 21 years of service to the county.

Martin was in charge of payroll and a human resources assistant.

She retired from full-time work March 31 and council members complemented her for her gracious attitude and precise payroll work.

• Mentioned county worker Jessie Ortiz was named volunteer of the year for South Carolina.

Ortiz was recognized for his interpretation work with the Spanish population at Barnwell County Detention Center.