County sets deadline for mayors

First Byline: 
David Purtell - Staff Writer

Update: The meeting is set for Monday, March 24, at 6 p.m. The agenda for the meeting says council will go into closed session to discuss the EDC situation. 

Original story:

Barnwell County Council had a lengthy, and at times heated, discussion about the ongoing situation with the county economic development commission during its meeting March 11.

About 50 minutes into the meeting, during the committee reports, Councilman Lowell Jowers made a motion to dump the municipalities from any future EDC board and create a three-member board with members chosen by county council. The motion led to a nearly 30 minute discussion and debate.
  
At the end, council voted to give the three mayors whose municipalities received EDC property and assets two weeks to look at council's pending ordinance for a new EDC and either agree to it or not. Council set March 24 as a date to meet with the mayors to hear their decision.

Council is stuck in a battle with the mayors of Barnwell, Williston and Blackville, and the two sides are an ocean apart in terms of how to move forward with a new EDC. The mayors want the municipalities to have control of the EDC because of a lack of trust in county council's future plans for the assets.
County council says everything the old EDC board did - deeding its property away and giving money to the towns, totalling $13-16 million - was illegal and the assets should be given back to the county.

In his motion, Jowers also said SouthernCarolina Alliance - an organization focused on development in a six-county region - should have authority to market the county's facilities. Jowers and council chairman Freddie Houston are members of the SCA board and attended a conference with other board members at Hilton Head Island the week before county council met.

Jowers mentioned the conference in the first line of his motion, saying, "In light of the conference that we just had at Hilton Head with SCA ..."

The lengthy discussion included opinions from all the council members. Councilman Keith Sloan initially urged council not to support Jowers' motion because other council members did not know what was discussed at the SCA conference.

Council then discussed the current EDC ordinance that would give each of the county's seven municipalities a member on the EDC board. County council was set to have a final reading of the ordinance during the meeting but did not.

Councilman Joe Smith expressed frustration that council members didn't receive a copy of the updated ordinance until they arrived at the meeting that night and had not had a chance to read it. He also said the mayors had not had a chance to see the ordinance and that the lack of communication between them and county council was hindering the whole process of trying to reach an agreement.
  
Houston said that county council knows what the mayors want and that the mayors "aren't going to budge". The mayors' proposal gives Williston, Blackville and Barnwell each two members on the board while county council gets three.

Houston said the negative news about the Barnwell EDC is hurting the county. He then restated a common theme of his that regional growth is crucial to the county's future.

Councilman Jerry Creech expressed his frustration with the bickering that has gone on the past three months. He said his constituents in District 7 are also fed up.

"We know what they (the mayors) want; they want control of the EDC. This is county property, county money. They know it. ... Everybody that I've talked to from District 7 is tired of it. We want our property back, I want to move forward," he said.

Jowers agreed with Creech, saying, "How long do we want to play this game? ... We're sitting here twiddling our thumbs. We're waiting on the cities; ... they want to take control. They have never had an interest in EDC until now. I just think we need to move on."

Councilman David Kenner said the towns should be allowed to look at the ordinance and then offer a rebuttal.

Smith and Councilman Harold Buckmon both said the county needs a plan and cannot move forward blindly into a lawsuit with the municipalities. Smith said he understands something needs to be done, but a lawsuit could last years, and nothing would be accomplished in the meantime.

Buckmon said it's important not to create animosity in the community.

Jowers then withdrew his original motion and made another one giving the towns five days to respond, but Houston said it would have to be longer than that.
  
"Mr. Chairman," Jowers responded angrily, pounding his fist on the table, "I am dead serious. I am dead serious, and I am dead serious. We give them two weeks, it's going to go to four weeks, it's going to go to six weeks, it's going to go to eight weeks ..."

Houston said that after two weeks if the towns don't respond then council will move on.

Sloan then told Creech that a lack of a working relationship between the county and the municipalities is in no one's interest.

Creech responded, "I want all our property and all our money that was stolen back to the Barnwell County taxpayers, who it belongs to."

Sloan countered, "Mr. Creech how much are you willing to spend to do it?" referencing the potential cost of a lengthy court battle.

At that point, the council began arguing and Houston had to pound the gavel to restore order.

At the urging of Councilman Sloan, Jowers eventually withdrew his second motion and made another one, giving the mayors until March 24 to answer whether they agree to the ordinance. Kenner seconded the motion. Sloan then made an amendment to make sure the ordinance is given to the municipalities. He also asked for a meeting to be scheduled for March 24 with county council and representatives from the three municipalities where council will hear their response.

The motion passed unanimously, but Creech said, "This is the last time I'm voting ‘yea.'"