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BAMBERG COUNTY

Bamberg County watchdog group begins petition to repeal budget

CCBC -Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County, library

A Bamberg County government watchdog group has begun a countywide petition campaign to repeal the 2021-22 county budget passed by a divided council on June 30.

The Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County has distributed its petition at various locations in the county, objecting to the budget's passage. CCBC says County Council and the county administration failed to follow state law in approving the budget.

A legal expert with the South Carolina Association of Counties, however, says there has not been a known case in which citizens have petitioned to repeal a budget passed by a local governing body. State law does not allow this possibility.

The CCBC cites a number of reasons in its petition for the repeal of the budget:

  • Failure of County Council and the county administrator to adhere to South Carolina law in the formulation, reading and approval of the budget.
  • "We further object to Bamberg County Council continuing to meet virtually in that S.C. Governor Henry McMaster lifted the COVID Emergency Order on June 8, 2021. By meeting virtually, Bamberg County Council violates Section 2 of the South Carolina State Constitution 'the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government or any department thereof for a redress of grievances."
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  • Failure to pass the budget at a public hearing.
  • Failure to advertise the public hearing 15 days in advance of the public hearing on the budget in a newspaper of general circulation in the county.
  • Council did not vote to approve the budget at first reading, rejected the budget at is second reading and approved it on third reading without a public hearing.
  • "Bamberg County Council has made ineffective South Carolina's Code of Laws regarding the formation of sound governing policy decisions and the lawful rights and transparency that to which the Bamberg County voters are statutorily and constitutionally entitled."

"Further, these actions have seriously curtailed public participation in the procedural process as prescribed by law for annual budget hearings," the petition states.

The petition has been placed in 14 businesses in Bamberg and Denmark on Main and Heritage Highway and in Ehrhardt on Broxton Bridge Road and New Market Street.

Detailed questions about the petition's circulation were submitted to the CCBC this past Monday afternoon with a deadline to answer set at Wednesday afternoon. The group said they were not ready to answer the questions.

Legal standing of petition

The South Carolina Association of Counties Deputy Executive Director and General Counsel Joshua C. Rhodes said he has never heard of a group of citizens petitioning to have a county budget repealed.

Bamberg County Council: $27.5 million budget approved; no tax increase included in plan

He said in the late 1990s a group of citizens in Mount Pleasant petitioned the town to adopt a zoning ordinance to preempt a development from going through, but the measure was later thrown out by the state's Supreme Court.

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According to Section 4-9-1210 of the S.C. Code of Laws in Article 13, "qualified electors of any county may propose any ordinance, except an ordinance appropriating money or authorizing the levy of taxes, and adopt or reject such ordinance at the polls."

"Any initiated ordinance may be submitted to the council by a petition signed by qualified electors of the county equal in number to at least 15% of the qualified electors of the county," the law continues.

Rhodes said the law specifically exempts electors from being able to petition for a repeal of an ordinance if the ordinance is related to the appropriation of money or the levy of taxes as mentioned in the code. He noted that is what a county budget does.

Section 1220 of Article 13 states, "Electors may petition for repeal of certain ordinances within 60 days of enactment by council of any ordinance authorizing the issuance of bonds, notes or other evidence of debt the repayment of which requires a pledge of the full faith and credit of the county ... signed by qualified electors of the county equal in number to at least 15% of the qualified electors of the county."

Rhodes noted the law specifically states appeals may be issued for bond ordinances.

"A county budget is not a bond ordinance," Rhodes said, noting in his reading the citizens do not have the legal standing to repeal the budget.

BAMBERG COUNTY COUNCIL: Budget gets 2nd OK

Rhodes did say the county council can go back and amend the budget to last year's budget by putting in a continuing resolution but that would be done at county council's discretion.

Paul W. Owen Jr., who has represented the CCBC in the past, said there are statutes regarding the petition, but when asked to provide a comment on the CCBC's petition, Owen said, "I don't have an opinion on this."

He referred all questions about the petition process to the CCBC spokesperson.

"I have not been asked to issue an opinion," Owen said.

The CCBC did not provide an answer when asked the name of the organization's current attorney.

Several attempts to reach Bamberg County attorney Richard Ness were unsuccessful.

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Budget opposition

During the public comment period in the budget-approval process, comments in opposition were submitted by a Miriam Beard and CCBC Chairperson Sue Clayton.

Beard warned council members to "be careful what you are voting for" and requested delaying the vote.

"Bamberg County residents will be very concerned that you voted for them to have increased taxes on property in the coming year," Beard wrote. "Citizens are already worrying about who you really represent here."

The comments ask a number of questions: "Why are you not being transparent about indebtedness of Bamberg County?" and "Why are you still going ahead with projects not sanctioned by County Council members?"

Bamberg County Council refuses to pass budget; council members demand information from administrator

"We understand Mr. Preston that you have the same agenda that ruined the last county you were engaged as an administrator," Beard continued. "County Council members, we are taking notes on who is voting for the benefit of Bamberg County."

Clayton wrote that the continued virtual meetings on the part of council are an indicator that while the world is opening up, council members still "feel the need to continue to hide from us."

"We aren't the bad guys," Clayton wrote. "We sincerely want to work with you to restore our lovely county to the prosperous area it once was. But you run from us, you ignore us, and even worse, the lawyer paid for with county funds (translated our tax dollars) to look after the interests of the county advises you that you don't have to answer to us."

"We are tired of being ignored. And we wish you would join us in our concern," Clayton said in ending her public comments.

Council members react

Bamberg County Council Chairman Larry Haynes said he has not seen the petition but has heard a petition is being circulated.

"I don't know why they are doing it," Haynes said. "We had a vote 4-3."

When informed about the concerns raised by the citizens, Haynes said the budget process went through three readings and was appropriately handled.

"I have never heard that any citizens can appeal a budget," Haynes said. "I have never heard that being done."

When asked why the meetings were still being held virtually in light of McMaster's lifting the COVID emergency order, Haynes said the pandemic is not over.

"People are still suffering from the pandemic," Haynes said. "Why would anybody want to expose anyone to that?"

"You have to use common sense," he said. "People are still dying from the pandemic. What about that don't people understand?"

Bamberg County Council continues to operate under two emergency ordinances implemented in July and October of 2020.

Council did announce that it will hold an in-person meeting Aug. 9.

He also noted the Bamberg council is not the only government body still holding virtual meetings.

Orangeburg County Council and Orangeburg City Council continue to hold their meetings virtually. Calhoun County Council meetings are held in-person with limited capacity. The meetings are also broadcast and listed on the county's Facebook page. South Carolina State University also continues to hold its board meetings virtually.

Councilman Clint Carter, who voted against the budget, said while he has heard about the petition, he had not seen it nor heard details about it.

"I have been out of pocket," Carter said.

When informed about the petition's contents, Carter echoed the concerns specific to having the meetings in-person. He also expressed his concerns about how the first reading of the budget was handled.

"I did not get a chance to vote on first reading," Carter said. "The way the vote was called, we did not have any discussion. I am supportive of the Concerned Citizens 100%. They have a reason to be concerned. A big reason."

Defending budget process

Earlier this month, Bamberg County Council gave third and final reading approval to the county’s $27.5 million spending plan for 2021-22.

The budget passed 4-3 with Haynes and members Evert Comer Jr., Spencer Donaldson and Dr. Jonathan Goodman voting in favor.

Council members Carter, Phil Myers and Sharon Hammond opposed it.

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Those opposed to the budget said council did not have enough time to review the budget and said they did not have enough time to fully vet the spending plan. Carter suggested the county approve a continuing resolution that would have allowed the county to spend in accordance with last year's budget.

This motion was never carried forward.

County officials defended their handling of the process in that the budget had to be approved before July 1 to be in compliance with state law.

County Administrator Joey Preston said the public hearing, which was held June 30, was advertised twice over a three-week period. The public hearing was advertised in the June 11 and June 23 editions of The Times and Democrat.

The public notice does say the public would have the ability to provide input on the budget electronically, though no mention was made in the public notice on how specifically comments could be made.

Preston said the public was provided a link to email enabling people to make public comments.

"An email link is provided on the county website where the public can easily post their comments," Preston said, noting the process has been the same for every council meeting since the pandemic began.

Preston said the county also posts its meetings on Facebook, the county calendar and the county's website.

Preston noted the public hearing was scheduled for June 29 but was delayed until June 30 because the budget did not advance on second reading on June 21. A meeting was rescheduled for June 23 to give second reading of the budget, which was approved.

Preston noted a seven-day period between second and third readings of an ordinance is required by law, meaning the public hearing had to be pushed back to June 30. Preston noted the county had a public notice for both the June 29 and June 30 meetings and public hearings.

Preston said the challenge was also that state law required the passage of a budget no later than June 30, so when the budget did not pass on second reading, there were only seven days to advertise the June 30 public hearing.

"My staff and I acted in the absolute best of faith, given the circumstances," Preston said. "We did everything physically possible with the hand that we were dealt, and, one might well argue, far more than state law required to allow maximum input from the public into the budgetary process."

Some residents complained public comments were submitted but then only positive comments were selectively read by Preston during the council meeting. Thus voices in opposition to the budget's passage and process were silenced.

The budget calls for a general fund of $9.2 million, along with separate accounts set up for special revenue, $8.6 million; enterprise, $1.4 million; debt service, $410,460, and capital projects, $7.8 million.

No property tax increase is expected. Next year’s millage rate is estimated to be 233.3, the same as this year.

Owners with houses valued at $100,000 pay $1,570 annually in property taxes. Owners of houses valued at $50,000 pay $820 annually.

The county expects to receive federal monies through the American Rescue Plan and from the state's rural stabilization fund.

  • This story has been changed to reflect the petition is not available online.
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