BAMBERG -- Nearly 150 energized and angry Bamberg County residents gathered at Monday’s county council meeting to call for a change in administration and leadership.
In a sometime contentious and animated 4-1/2 hour meeting, council heard from constituents calling for them to provide greater transparency and rein in spending and taxation.
Several attendees called for the termination or resignation of Bamberg County Administrator Joey Preston.
"He is an outsider and he is surrounded by a cloud of suspicion," Bamberg resident Kim Compton said. She helped start the grassroots organization Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County, which has more than 500 members.
"The Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County are uneasy about him running the finances of this county," Compton said. "Through the eyes of the taxpayer, nothing has improved since 2012 when you came here."
"The concerned citizens of Bamberg County believe that Mr. Preston's departure is the first step toward a better Bamberg County," Compton said.
Heather Ulmer of Bamberg, whose husband owns The Olde Depot Auction Co., contacted Preston in the spring of 2016 about the company auctioning some of Bamberg County's equipment and assets.
A formal bid was submitted, but Ulmer said it was later discovered that another company had received the bid without her husband’s knowledge.
"We pay taxes just like they do in this county," Ulmer said. "This auction company is a fine company, however this is and was not how the county should be operating."
Ulmer said she was later told the fleet of cars was in Anderson. Preston is former county administrator in Anderson County.
"Mr. Preston does what he wants to do," Ulmer said to a round of applause. "It doesn't matter if things are done the right way or not. It also is a shame that we are not keeping business in Bamberg County but sending it to other places."
"I would like to see our county operating with transparency, accountability and honesty," she said. "Unfortunately, I do not feel like our current administrator is operating in this manner."
Preston declined comment after the meeting.
Taxes and loans
Attendees also called out county council for its spending of taxpayer dollars.
In June 2018, Bamberg County increased its budget by $1.6 million from $14.3 million to $15.9 million, blaming unfunded state mandates for the tax increase associated with the county’s $15.9 million spending plan. This is equivalent to a 40-mill increase.
"The Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County see all of you as the enemy," Compton said. "You are not on our side. You are not doing what is best for us. Stop spending money that you don't have. Stop getting loans."
Last June, council approved going ahead with a $6 million loan to restore and renovate Bamberg County Courthouse.
The $6 million loan comes with a 3.875 percent interest rate for a 40-year term. Annual payments will be about $298,000 under the proposed financing plan.
About six years ago, council also took out an $8.4 million loan through its Bamberg County Facilities Corp., a nonprofit entity charged with managing the county's revenue bonds.
Council approved refinancing the loan in November 2015, but some residents noted that by this time, the amount had risen to about $10 million. Residents are concerned this in turn will mean a further tax increases to help pay off the loan.
Attorney Ray Jones, who helped direct the county in the refinancing of the bonds, said the county was able to cut the interest rate in half from about 8 percent to about 4 percent at the time of refinancing. He said the county was able to save $1.2 million on interest as a result.
Councilman Joe Guess and Chairman Trent Kinard defended the county going for the loan at the time.
"The reason we took this loan is that we could have the money up front rather than wait for the sales tax money to trickle in," Guess said.
Kinard said, "The other reason is we would be $2 million in the hole. The next step was bankruptcy."
Guess said the county was approved for the loan due to its good credit rating at the time.
"The reason we were able to refinance it at more favorable terms was because the lender ... felt like we were in a position to repay it," he said. "You don't get loaned money if they don't think you can pay it back."
The funds to repay for original loan came from fee-in-lieu of taxes from five industries in the county and property taxes.
Jones said at the current payments, about $4 million to $5 million of the $10 million loan will be paid off over the next seven years.
Kinard asked Jones if guidance is provided by Jones and the law firm as the county goes through approving a loan.
"We make sure you have margins," Jones said.
Others expressed concerns about the county's inability to land a grocery store in Bamberg.
Last September, Barnwell IGA owner Steve Fennell said he was going to open an IGA store in the former Bi-Lo building at 3386 Railroad Ave.
But the town and county have not been able to come up with incentives to make the store a reality.
"It is your fault and you need to fix it," Compton said.
A big crowd
Individuals arrived early to the Bamberg County Courthouse Annex, waiting outside for more than an hour to ensure they would have a seat in Council Chambers.
Council Chambers has a 42-seat capacity. Absent the furniture and chairs, the capacity is 105.
This left several dozen attendees in the lobby of the annex listening the proceedings through an open door.
With the time approaching 9:30 p.m. and three hours into the meeting, Kinard made a motion to have another meeting at the National Guard Armory in Bamberg.
The motion was drowned out by a chorus of "No!" and discontent from the estimated 150 gathered who wanted to be heard immediately.
Kinard withdrew the motion and banged the gavel calling for order.
Sixteen people expressed their frustrations and concerns with council during the allocated public comment period.
Bamberg resident Gail Ellis said when she was in the annex building conducting business on Jan. 29 when she overheard Kinard using a vulgarity when referring to Bamberg County resident Walt Inabinet, who has used social media to call out Kinard for his actions and governance.
"He was bragging about what he was going to do to a certain citizen and how he had lawyer that was really going to take care of this MF and that he was tired of this MF being on his f'ing back," Ellis said. "I think it is a total disgrace. What you do in your home is your business. What I do in my home is my business. When you are in this building that these people pay for, that is our business."
"What kind of image is that?" Ellis said.
Kinard denied saying it.
"You are a bold-face liar," Kinard said. The comment received a chorus of ooos and ahhs.
"I don't lie," Ellis said. "I have no reason to lie. I heard what you said."
Ken Ahlin of Bamberg listed a number of his concerns, including council not listening to the people and not being transparent.
"Council members are elected to serve the will of the people," he said. "I am not feeling it right now. You have a duty to maintain public trust in government. If you are trying to gain people's trust, they have to see what is going on. We don't see anything."
Ahlin also called for council to send out email notifications of meetings and to publish the budget and ordinances on the county's website.
"I rather see the website upgraded with up-to-date content ahead of time instead of the caboose downtown," Ahlin said, referring to the Town of Bamberg's plans to restore a caboose that will be placed next to the county courthouse campus. The goal is to create a small museum within the caboose.
Bamberg County will fund about $75,000 of the project out of a $6 million U.S. Department of Agriculture loan it received for the restoration of the courthouse.
Ehrhardt resident Betty Singleton questioned why the county has employed individuals in "high positions" who do not live in the county.
"Does this mean that you don't think people in Bamberg County are qualified?" she said.
She questioned why county Controller Gina Smith is out of the county.
"Was this position available to the public?" Singleton said.
She said she looked at the salary for the controller in Orangeburg and it is less than the controller in Bamberg County. Both make in the $70,000s a year, Singleton said.
"We keep saying this is a poor county," Singleton said. "How can you use poor and $79,000 in the same sentence? I don't understand that. It doesn't add up."
"Do we have your attention?" Brad Hudson said. "We want change for our community, for our county. Y’all are not even looking at me."
He praised Inabinet for calling out council on social media.
"We have shown up," he said, calling the large attendance the "new normal."
"The taxpayers have the power," Hudson said. "We are going to hold you to the fire."
Some expressed concerns that the meeting was not moved to a larger venue.
Councilman Clint Carter said he had requested moving the meeting across the street to the courthouse.
"When you don't have the majority, this is what happens," Carter said.
Kinard defended not moving the meeting to a larger venue.
"Moving the meeting would have done nothing," he said. "It would have been no different tonight. You would have sit in a room. You still would only have three minutes to speak."
Several council members thanked those in attendance and expressed their openness to listen and address their concerns.
"I have heard you loud and clear," Councilwoman Sharon Hammond said. "We have to work together. You have to remain open. We can get through some of these concerns."
"We need to do something and we have to do something," she said. "You can't operate without me and I can't operate without you because you put us here."
Hammond asked for continued patience by all.