Bamberg County residents, taxpayers and voters are gullible dunces. Or at least that's what Bamberg County Council Chairperson Sharon Hammond, County Administrator Joey Preston and The T&D (by complicity in publishing unchallenged Hammond's Preston-penned open letter, "Be Bamberg, naturally," of Feb. 26 must think.)
Hammond's T&D letter is full of half-truths, distortions and public relations positive spin regarding a county in the throes of duplicitous governance, a disdain for public scrutiny, and a disregard of taxpayers' concerns. (How and why The T&D would promulgate and proliferate these inaccuracies by not challenging the veracity of the letter's content is a story for another day.)
Hammond starts her revisionist Bamberg County account by noting the county "recovered from near bankruptcy in 2012" based largely on the Bamberg County Hospital closing and leaving the county $1.35 million in debt, but that the county "established a credit rating saving us $1.2 million in interest.” What a cruel distortion of truth and an insult to anyone who has ever balanced their own checking account.
In fact, Bamberg County was a lot more than $2.3 million in debt and teetering on bankruptcy because County Council had pilfered that amount from designated school tax collections to meet county payroll and loan-service payments! Then to add insult to illicit injury, Preston concocted a scheme whereby the county used our own courthouse and future designated millage increases as collateral to borrow $8.4 million in 2013 using a shell nonprofit corporation (the Bamberg Facilities Corp).
And, unlike Hammond's assertion the county "established a credit rating saving us $1.2 million in interest,” the county instead merely took out a whole new $10.8 million loan in 2015 (the lowered interest rate allowed council to keep the payments the same as on the 2013 loan but the county lost more than a million dollars in writing off as a loss all payments made from 2013 to 2015 on the original $8.4 million loan.) So now, thanks to Preston and council, the county has a $10.8 million loan to pay on and total long-term liabilities in excess of $23 million.
Hammond also states the county "raised $2.5 million in sales tax revenues to reduce debt.” If that's true, council broke state law as sales tax revenues can only be used for capital projects (and not to repay debt) as approved by a countywide referendum. Bamberg County's 2012 and 2018 penny sales tax referenda included no such expenditures.
On the economic front, Hammond stretches credulity to the extreme by saying "… some plants have closed, but others have expanded (Freudenberg)"…"we gained jobs in 2019" … and "have the lowest unemployment in 30 years.” Allow me to unpack these half-truths.
Our "lowest unemployment" (4.5% in December 2019) is still the second highest county jobless rate in the state and almost double the state average of 2.3%. Among "some plants" that have closed are this past week's announcement of the county's largest employer Rockland, Black Water Barrels Manufacturing, and what was the county's third largest taxpayer Masonite (behind only SCE&G and Edisto Electric Co-op). By the way, Rockland was paying $248,536 a year in county taxes. And the reopening of Black Water or the 113 jobs Pegasus was going to bring to replace Masonite … Yeah, that hasn't happened. And as for Freudenberg, they employ fewer people than when they bought Tobul Accumulators.
Why would Hammond boast that 40% of Bamberg County residents have to go out of the county to work or that 36% of Bamberg County jobs are filled by out-of-county residents (meaning only 24% of Bamberg County's workforce lives and works here)? Maybe she and/or Preston use the points to cover that Administrator Preston and County Controller Gina Smith both still reside in Anderson County and pay no taxes here or that Preston took away the non-profit Bamberg Rescue Squad's county E-911 ambulance contract and awarded the $450,000 contract without bid to the for-profit Medshore Ambulance based in … (wait for it) … Anderson.
Hammond concludes her (or Preston's) open letter by saying, "Be Bamberg by becoming involved in our vision and our progress. Our future depends on you. Let's move forward."
Here's a thought for Chairperson Hammond: Why don't you move forward by correcting Preston and council's myopic vision by being a Bamberg leader who tells the whole truth rather than perpetuating the same fiscal shell game of your ethically challenged administrator and your chair predecessor? You've stumbled out of the gate as the new chairperson and disappointed many by doing so. Bamberg County citizens want to work with council, but you can't smooth out the many bumps in the road by coloring them gold.
Walt Inabinet is from Bamberg.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!