Mayors and county fail to agree

Barnwell County Council is set to file a lawsuit against the towns of Blackville, Williston and Barnwell after council and the mayors of the towns could not reach a compromise on the future of the county's economic development commission during a meeting Monday night.

At the end of the meeting, council unanimously approved a motion by Councilman Lowell Jowers to have the county contract with SouthernCarolina Alliance to market the county's facilities - even though ownership of the facilities is in question. The motion also called for the county to employ someone to represent the county in economic development matters.

The motion did not include anything about an Economic Development Corporation board for the county.

Council also gave the county's attorney, J.D. Mosteller, authority to file lawsuits on behalf of the county against the towns to try and recover the assets deeded away by the previous EDC board in December. The three towns received EDC property located within each municipality -- and $90,000 each. The assets were under the control of the county Economic Development Corporation, a private entity run by EDC board members, when they were deeded.

Some of the properties in question are the plant on Dunbarton in Barnwell currently home to a plastics company, Climax Global in Blackville and the Enterprise building in Williston's industrial park.

Barnwell Mayor Ed Lemon spoke on behalf of the mayors at the meeting. Williston Mayor Jason Stapleton and Blackville Mayor Mike Beasley were also there along with attorney Tom Boulware - who represents Williston and Barnwell - and Barnwell City Administrator John Zawacki.

"We feel that in the history of things ...," Lemon said, "the county council - not necessarily this county council - but county councils in the past a lot of times treated the municipalities as if they're not part of the county ..." even though half the county's population lives in the municipalities.

Lemon said the towns have had their battles with county council in the past, but the mayors feel they would be helping the county by "taking charge of the EDC." All the EDC properties are within the three towns' limits, and who better to monitor them then the municipalities they're located in, he said.

Lemon referenced the ordinance pending with county council -- but now is on hold -- that would create an 11-member EDC board with each of the county's seven municipalities getting a representative on the board and county council getting four. The ordinance gives control of the EDC assets to county council while restricting the powers of the EDC board.

This is the concern the mayors have had: with county council in control of the EDC assets, the future of the properties is at stake.

"Who's to say that somewhere down the road, a new (county) council with all new faces takes over and decides they want to dissolve the EDC and turn the assets over to SCA (SouthernCarolina Alliance)?," Lemon asked.

Lemon mentioned the connection between county council members and the SCA. The head of the SCA is former Barnwell County Council Chairman Danny Black. Current council members Jowers and Freddie Houston are on the SCA board.

The mayors aren't against the SCA, Lemon said, but because it represents a six-county region they think Barnwell will be overlooked because it's not near any major interstate or port like other SCA counties such as Hampton and Jasper.

County councilmen then asked the mayors questions about how they would handle ownership and marketing of the EDC property. They also made clear that the EDC was initially created by county council.

"I don't know, first off, if any of the municipalities can afford to manage and operate the properties in their communities and market those properties in a way that benefits those communities ...," Councilman Keith Sloan said.

There's never been an attempt by county council to turn the EDC assets over to the SCA, Sloan said. He said the county would be making a mistake to walk away from the assets and that the towns would be making a mistake if they tried to run the EDC properties themselves.

"You don't have the money, the expertise, nor the time. Plain and simple," Sloan said about the towns trying to market the assets.

But the towns don't want to run the EDC themselves, Lemon responded. The mayors' proposal gives the three towns two members each on an EDC board and the county three members. It also says the towns will give the assets back to the EDC Corporation once certain rules are put in place by a new EDC board, protecting the assets from being given away in the future without consent from the towns.

"You're telling us, ‘Trust us; we don't trust you, but you trust us,'" Sloan said about the mayors' proposal.

That basically is the problem for both sides: a lack of trust, whether in the present or in the future, about what the other side will do.

After the meeting, Chairman Houston said the mayors want to run the EDC but don't want any of the responsibility and liability that comes with taking care of the properties.

During the meeting, Councilman Jerry Creech asked the mayors if they were bothered by the way they received the assets - with the old EDC board going behind county council's back.

Mayor Lemon's response was, "Walk a mile in my moccasins, then you can answer that question."
Councilman Lowell Jowers asked if the mayors condoned what the old EDC board did. Lemon said they do.

"That's all the answer I need," Jowers said.

On Tuesday, Lemon told The People-Sentinel he has to assume the previous EDC board members -- appointed by county council -- are competent and had a reason for doing what they did.

"Where there's smoke, there's fire," he said.

Councilman David Kenner expressed the need to move forward together. He said the situation is hurting everyone in the county and asked for a "reset" and to go with county council's ordinance for a new EDC board.

Creech said the only winners in a lawsuit between the counties and the towns will be the lawyers, and that the taxpayers will be the losers.

Houston told the mayors they will be paying for their own lawyers' fees and the county's attorneys' fees after the lawsuit - meaning he thinks the county will win.

He also said the county has helped the municipalities plenty of times in the past. "We've done basically whatever request that has came up from the towns. ... But here we are now talking about trying to attract industry and we feel like we can't even sit down and have a conversation ..."

After the discussion ended the mayors huddled outside the building - county-council meets in the building that houses the county elections office -- while council went into closed session to discuss contractual matters regarding the EDC situation.

The mayors said they weren't sure if all of the county council members had read their proposal since some members were stuck on the issue of the towns keeping control of the property even though the mayors' proposal says the towns will give the property back to the EDC once certain protections are put in place.

Both sides have said they don't want to end up in court over the issue, but events indicate that's exactly where everyone is heading. What's unclear is how a lengthy court battle will affect Barnwell County in the long term, both economically and as a community.