County Council updated on SRNS, roads, ED site

Updates on the Savannah River Site, road improvements and the regional emergency department highlighted the Barnwell County Council meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 9.

Stuart MacVean, president and CEO of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, said SRNS currently has 5,500 employees. “We make up about half of the total site population,” said MacVean.

The Savannah River Site includes nearly 57 percent of the landmass of Barnwell County.

MacVean said the economic impact for SRNS on Barnwell County is $48.4 million.

He said SRNS is “a key component of the nuclear weapons program” which recovers tritium from nuclear weapons and fuel assemblies.

“We go around the world recovering nuclear materials and then treat them and turn it into a usable form,” he said.

He said the Savannah River Nuclear Laboratory is a separate entity. “We do a lot of secure energy work,” he said. “A primary focus is nuclear detection. Probably half is for Homeland Security or the FBI,” he said.

He said the site has a “healthy hiring spree” going on and 83 percent of those hired are locals.

“We have to develop the next stage and prepare the (hiring) pipeline,” said MacVean. He said they are partnering with local educational programs and developing partnerships.

He said his advice to young folks is “don’t get yourself in trouble” since about 70 percent of employees are required to have a security clearance.

He told the council that he recently met with the Chamber of Commerce executive director to discuss hosting a small business day to advise local business owners/managers on the procedures to work with the Savannah River Site. “We have a really high small business percentage. We do about $165 million in small business outreach.”

Road improvements

Next to address the council was Kevin Gantt with the South Carolina Department of Transportation.

“We are really excited to get the gas tax money,” said Gantt of South Carolina’s new gas tax. He explained the tax will be phased in at 2 cents per year for six years for an eventual total of 12 cents.

“This gas tax is really landmark for us,” he said. “We have been maintaining a system on 1989 dollars. It is going to be exciting to rebuild our roads.”

He said South Carolina has the fourth largest transportation system in the nation with 20,000 miles – “that’s larger than 42 other states,” he said. “I just want you to understand the size and scope of this problem.”

He said the DOT has identified four key areas for improvements which include rural road safety, pavements, bridges and interstate widening.

“South Carolina has the highest fatality rate in the nation,” noted Gantt. “Thirty percent of the fatalities are on 5 percent of the roads. Only 20 percent of our pavements are in good condition.”

He said the state has 8,400 bridges and 750 of them are structurally deficient (but not ‘falling down’ critical). Additionally, the interstate needs widening.

“Previously, we did not have the funds for these projects,” said Gantt. He explained that the “net impact” of those 12 cents over time is $800,000 million – “new money to improve our roads.”

In return South Carolinians will be able to file for safety maintenance tax credits, “so save those gas receipts.”

“What are we getting? One thousand miles of rural roads improved, 30 years of neglect reversed, 465 new bridges and 140 miles of interstates improved,” he said. “That’s impressive but I think the citizens of South Carolina deserve the improvements.”

Emergency Department

Third on the agenda was Kathy Rhoad of Regional Medical Center which is constructing an emergency medical department to serve Bamberg and Barnwell counties.

“I am happy to say that this week they moved dirt,” said Rhoad of the construction project. She said “it took a while to get through the permitting process” but “things are moving forward.”

She showed the council a floor plan of the $8.3 million freestanding emergency department that is located on Highway 70 just west of the City of Denmark.

“We hope it will be open by September 2018,” she said. When asked about employees, Rhoad said “conservatively 30 but probably closer to 40 employees will work there.”

Administrator’s report

Following the presentation by Rhoad, Barnwell County Administrator Pickens Williams Jr. gave his report.

He said Emergency Management Director Roger Riley had notified him that the county had been approved for a $90,000 grant to purchase four generators. Williams said the matching portion of the grant was from Plant Votgle funds to the county and “we got some help from Lower Savannah Council of Governments.”

Williams also reported that the two tankers for the fire departments had been picked up with one going to Hilda and the other to Barnwell Rural departments.

The administrator reminded the councilmen that the National Guard Armory will no longer be available for use as a voting precinct. He said the precinct will be moved to the Health Department / SC Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) building.

Councilman Ben Kinlaw noted that this was not just a Barnwell County situation but changes were being made throughout the state, mostly due to national security concerns.

Economic Development debate

An issue which sparked tensions following last month’s meeting resurfaced again during one portion of the meeting. At the September meeting the council unanimously approved a contract with SouthernCarolina Alliance to take over economic development efforts for the county. There was miscommunication between Councilmen Freddie Houston and Jerry Creech over whether the contract was a continuation of the 2011 contract or what turned out to be an amended contract which later led to angst between the two councilmen after Houston realized he had voted for an amended contract.

Councilman David Kenner was absent from the September meeting and asked last week “how did that contract develop and how does that place us in the lawsuit?”

The county is being sued by three local municipalities over the Economic Development Commission and the corporation it oversees.

Chairman Lowell Jowers said, “The contract was the one we discussed in 2014. It was a service contract. I sent it to Columbia to the attorney; he looked it over and said we could go with it. We put it on the agenda. It was on your tablets.”

Houston responded, “I asked if that was the same contract we now have with SCA” and said he was led to believe it was although it wasn’t.

Houston also asked about a proposal by EDC executive director Tommy Boyleston which was given to some councilmen but not the entire council. “Apparently Mr. Jowers decided who would get it and who would not get it.”

Creech, who chairs the EDC committee for council, responded, “The reason we did not push forward is that Mr. Boyleston asked me not to so he could talk to the commission.”

“As far as me trying to deceive council, you had your packet,” said Creech. He asked the other councilmen, “Did I deceive you all?”

Chairman Jowers interceded saying, “This is a dead issue. It has been voted upon. Let’s move on.”

Earlier there had been a debate over an appointment of Brett Bell to the EDC board. Bell lives in District 45 but was being nominated by Councilman Don Harper to represent District 29 which is Freddie Houston’s district. Houston said the council in previous years had used the delineation of school districts when appointing members to the commission.

But the ordinance has county “at large” appointments rather than school district delineation, according to Jowers.

“I told you that (the previous method) was a violation of the ordinance,” said Jowers.

“So, that was done illegally?” asked Houston.

“Yes. You and I talked on the phone. It does not follow the ordinance,” said Jowers.

Councilman Kenner said the previous method had been “a gentleman’s agreement”.

In a roll call vote over the appointment, Councilmen Kenner and Houston voted against the motion while Buckmon, Creech, Harper, Jowers and Kinlaw voted in favor.

Other business

In other business the council:

- Unanimously approved an inclement weather policy to reimburse employees who worked during recent hurricanes.

- Referred discussion of taking solar farm revenue to be used for county employee salary improvements to the finance committee for the 2018 budget.

- Unanimously approved the sale of surplus property with the funds to be reinvested in new equipment for the public works department.

- Unanimously approved the purchase of a new front-end loader.

- Unanimously approved a request from the Town of Hilda for the county to take over building inspections in the municipality.

- Nominated Scott Church to the Airport Commission for District 3

- Nominated Sam McKay to the Airport Commission (At Large Seat)

- Appointed Tina Gray to Museum Board for District 7

- Following an hour-long closed session the council approved new job descriptions for the clerk to council as well as the custodian.

They also approved turning over all personnel matters to the county administrator. Additionally they approved a motion by Jerry Creech for the finance committee to look for funding for salary increases in next year’s budget.