BAMBERG -- SouthernCarolina Alliance Executive Director Danny Black brought Bamberg County Council up to date on the economic development group's work to improve the quality of life in the region at council's March 4 meeting.
A large crowd of citizens, who had formed a line leading out to the street well ahead of the 6:30 p.m. meeting, also showed up to voice their continued concerns over county leadership, taxes and transparency. The meeting lasted a little more than three hours.
SCA serves Bamberg, Allendale, Barnwell, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties.
The agency brought $174 million in private investment to the region and 696 new jobs in 2018, Black reported.
“That’s not a huge amount, quite frankly. It is for us as a smaller county, but if you compare that to past years, it runs pretty even. It’s about the same numbers on average as we announce every year in the seven counties,” Black said.
In the area of marketing, he said, "Last year we talked to 163 companies directly. We talked to 50 site consultants all over the country and all over the world. That’s a lot of talking, and we’re out here selling our seven counties to these people,” he said.
“We did pick up a lot of agribusiness this past year. There is great interest in agribusiness right now, and we wanted to make sure we were capturing that market,” Black said, noting that the SCA has also been working with Volvo to lure potential auto suppliers for that company to the region.
In the area of internal marketing, Black also reported that SCA has also started an ambassador program for the region which would involve recruiting 100 individuals to get involved in marketing the region.
He said good news is especially needed in light of one of Bamberg County's largest manufacturers announcing its closure. Masonite International Corp., a doormaker, says it is closing its manufacturing plant in Denmark on July 31.
“Those things happen. We’ve got to be able to sell positive things about what’s going on in these counties to get people to move here, to get industry to move here. We’re starting to work with some consultant groups to see if we can come up with a plan to do some of that,” Black said.
What about the fate of the Masonite building?
“There are certain things that we put into the company when it located here, and there are certain things that they have not met. So we’re looking at where that stands. ... We’d like to get to see the building go back into operation in some manner,” Black said.
He said both the taxpayers and Masonite spent money to upgrade the building, with Masonite adding space for docking, warehousing and more, and have enhanced its marketability as a result.
“We would love to have that inventory, and they haven’t answered us. But we think what would be a reasonable approach is for them to give the building back so we can market it again. Now, whether we’ll have to pay anything into that, I don’t know at this stage,” Black said.
He said he understands the burden that Bamberg County is going through in trying to locate industry into the area, particularly with the high property tax rate not just locally, but regionally.
“Our property tax in this region is extremely high. To run the operations, to do the capital investments, etc., you have to bring in so much money. The only way you can bring in so much money is to tax. ... If you have to up taxes, it normally falls back on residential and commercial (property owners). It’s a burden,” Black said, noting that having a better workforce, transportation system and becoming “better salesmen” for the region would help the process.
In other business, several Bamberg County residents voiced their concerns over some of the challenges they see in the county, including high taxes and lack of transparency from county leadership.
Ken Ahlin said the public should have its “voices heard” and questioned whether the council was having the required public hearings on such matters as adopting annual operational budgets.
Council Chairman Trent Kinard said, “Yes, it has been done. Yes, sir, I can show you. We can go back and look at that.”
County Administrator Joey Preston said he would also be able to provide Ahlin with information that all required public hearings have been held, including for the approval of a USDA loan application to provide for the renovation of the old county courthouse.
Last June, council approved going ahead with a $6 million loan to restore and renovate the facility.
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Preston said in an emailed statement Tuesday that the process is tedious.
“The hazardous materials testing has begun. Once this is done, we will revise the cost estimates and process. Discussions are underway to determine where to temporarily locate Circuit Court, Family Court, Probate Court and the Clerk of Court, Solicitor and Public Defender offices.”
Raymond Derienzo said he believes county improvements should begin with infrastructure improvements, including turning the Bamberg Civic Center into a multi-use law enforcement complex.
Kinard said, “That, of course is a city building. We have to get with them and everything to do all that.”
Councilwoman Sharon Hammond said ideas such as those from Derienzo were needed.
"We know we don't have all the ideas, we don't have all the solutions. ... This is a good way of putting your ideas out there, see if we can work them into the part that we have and then maybe go over to the city and work together. We've got to do all of this together,” she said.
Carol Durgan said, “I think you need a bigger meeting place,” and also offered her services in painting the speed bumps in front of the courthouse annex building yellow and creating more handicapped parking spots near the building.
Dean Fralix admonished the council to stop spending more money than it was taking in.
“We just got to quite spending money that we don’t have. ... We can’t spend as much money as we’ve been spending. We can’t borrow money that we can’t pay back,” Fralix said.
Brad Hudson of the Concerned Citizens of Bamberg County said he is awaiting information from the county on six Freedom of Information requests, including a list of all employees, including contracted employees, who have county credit cards or expense accounts.
Preston said Tuesday that all information that Hudson was seeking would be provided.
Hudson also called for council not to renew Preston’s contract, stating that some details in his contract -- including that Preston Consulting LLC would hire, train and employ its employees using its own training method -- were absurd.
“Council, he works for us. But if you read this contract, we work for him. He makes $130,000-plus a year. I want this contract. If I had this contract, I’d work 12 days out of a year and I’d be on a cruise ship the rest of the year,” said Hudson, who also advised council to think harder on how to maximize funds raised through its capital projects sales tax to pay for construction projects.
“Generate some more thought on how we could designate projects in the one percent that will produce revenue for the county,” he said.
The Rev. Rufus Jamison said the county is trying to do too much at one time. He said with the recent building of the courthouse annex, there should not have been a move to remodel the old courthouse.
“You cannot do all these things. We’re a small county ... and we need men and women to run this county like it should be,” he said, noting that the citizenry was also being “killed” with taxes.
“We need people to do the right thing. This is a small county. We can’t do everything in three years,” Jamison said.
Frank Ward, who just moved to the county from Columbia, said, “This is a great little town, great people, but it’s dying. People are leaving. I just moved here. And hearing all this kind of stuff, I’m ready to leave myself.”
Ward said, “I don’t mean to be offensive, but is there something that these people can do to vote ‘no confidence’ in y’all and get y’all to removed and get somebody on this council that’ll help this town out to rise again like it used to be? It ain’t happening.”
Kinard said, “I hope you’ll get on some committees and boards and try to help us out as well,” noting taxpayers are paying more in school taxes than they are in county taxes.
“Sixty-four cents out of a dollar goes to them. We collect about 22 cents to pay the bills that we do pay. I just hope people would look at your tax notice and realize that, yes, we may be a little higher as well, but it’s not just us,” Kinard said.
Council members expressed their appreciation for the citizens coming out to voice their concerns. While Councilman Joe Guess Jr. said it seemed like council’s efforts at solutions are sometime “rejected,” Hammond urged leadership and the citizenry to continue to work together.
“The action has to be two ways. They have to come, they have to get involved. And we have to make ourselves transparent. And we have to do it together. It can’t be done any other way,” she said.