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Help us move forward

Posted: January 5, 2012 11:25 a.m.
Updated: January 6, 2012 5:00 a.m.

I believe that a person who is elected to a position of leadership should never enter the post without a solid position about the future that he/she believes is best for the people who have elected him/her. I have spent my entire life, except for my college years, in Camden, and I am proud to say that my son, daughter-in-law and grandson live here also. As I have grown older, I have watched my beloved hometown shrink and be filled with parks that became run-down, infrastructure that became outdated, streets that were filled with potholes, and a city not excited enough about its existence to invest in itself. I promised myself that if the opportunity presented itself, I would offer for office so that I could aid in correcting the thought pattern that had allowed my beloved hometown to become a run-down, little historic town.

In order to correct these problems, I knew that we would have to create a town that was financially stable, had sufficient revenues to support itself, had a vision about what it should look like in the future and the conviction to see that the vision became reality. Thanks to your support, I have been on council with two mayors and two city managers. When we first started, not only were the parks run down and the streets full of pot holes but your city’s reserve cash in both the general fund and the utility fund was next to nothing. The previous mayor and council had started re-development by putting the electric lines in downtown Camden underground but that project had come at a cost in that the reserve fund had been spent down. We, your elected officials, have spent the last 12 years refurbishing your parks, re-paving your streets, repairing your water and sewer line infrastructure, putting more wires underground to improve the look of the town, and building your reserve fund to a place that is more than respectable. To be more specific, we, your council, have increased your reserve fund in the general fund by 650 percent and the utility reserve fund by 550 percent since the year 2000. I ask you to stop and not think about the present but the past and the future. Is the city of Camden a better looking place than it was 12 years ago? Is the infrastructure in better condition than it was 12 years ago? Are your reserve funds where they should be according to our accountants? Have we been financially responsible for the stability of your city? And, finally, would you agree that your real property taxes have not been raised in the last three years? I submit to you that the answer to all of these questions is “yes!”

You might ask “what is left to be done?” Planning for the future? Thankfully, we have planned for the future with your input and with the help of some professionals. This planning consists of the Comprehensive Land Use Plan and the DPZ Report, both of which were created with your, the citizen’s, input. Both of these plans posed several changes that needed to be made for the future of our town to be bright. Now comes the rub in that both of these plans called for “CHANGE.” I have observed over the years that most people resist “change” because it requires forging ahead into the unknown. Do you always get it right? No, but without change, nothing goes forward. Man would not have walked on the moon. We would not have the Internet or all of the electronic devices that we have without change. So change can be our friend. We, you and I, and all of the other citizens of Camden are at a crossroads. Do we take the vision that you, the people, told us you wanted and put it on the shelf to gather dust or do we move forward and create a town that will give our children and our grandchildren the opportunity to have a better place to live and raise their children?

The city of Camden currently has the opportunity to move forward by investing in itself. I have personally been saddened by the reaction of some of my fellow citizens to the proposal on which we are currently working. We have been treated as if we have no interest in the city of Camden. I ask you to stop and look at your council. Walter Long is a life-long resident of the city of Camden with children whom he and his wife are raising here in the city of Camden. Mayor Jeffrey Graham is a life-long resident with a child whom he and his wife are raising here in our town. As I mentioned earlier, my son, daughter-in-law and grandson live here in our town. Alfred Mae Drakeford is a life-long resident of our town who has worked tirelessly for this community in many, many unpaid positions. Willard Polk and his wife have been here all of their adult lives and while Mr. Polk has opposed moving forward with this venture at this time, he has repeatedly said that he is not opposed to the venture itself. I realize that you can please all of the people some of the time, some of the people all of the time but you cannot please all of the people all of the time. I ask you, would the people on your council -- all of whom have a vested interest in this city -- take action that would be against the creation of a better environment?

Let’s look at the proposal that we have before us and answer with correct factual information the questions that have been raised. The first question to be answered is “Did we as a city council make a poor decision and was there any back room dealing to make Mayor Jeffrey Graham a rich man at the expense of the citizens of Camden?” I am personally appalled by this suggestion but here are the facts. We, as a council, have for years been trying, with the help of others, to invest in our city. An example would be the purchase of the land for the Farmers Market.

In an attempt to further the pursuit of investment in our city, we looked to create a recreational complex for two reasons. One of these reasons was to provide the citizens of this community with a facility that would promote their health and well-being, and the other was to invest in our city and community to help it grow by bringing in "tourists" to stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants and enjoy the city. One of the criticisms that I have heard centers around the definition of the word "tourists” given to us by Ms. Pope when she opined that a “tourist” could be anyone who lived outside of the city. I assure you that our definition of “tourists” is not so limited. We look to bring people here from all over the state and out of state. You might ask “How is that possible?” You need only stop for a moment and look at the equine center in which we, your council, have invested and which is just outside the city to see that if you offer good events, the public will come and spend lots of money. I ask you to stop and look at Walter Long who, along with his wife and children, spends many weekends out of town attending events in other cities. He is not the only one in this town who makes this extra effort for his children. We want to stop that money from leaving town and indeed to bring other people’s’ money here to the city. What kind of events, you might ask. A nonexclusive list might include volleyball tournaments, basketball tournaments, soccer tournaments, tennis tournaments, ping pong tournaments and even chess tournaments. The influx of the tax dollars from these events would of course lighten the load on the citizens of Camden and would give the city additional funds to invest in our city.

All of this we want to do without raising your taxes. The purchase of the Mather Academy property was not done with current tax dollars. As a matter of fact, no tax dollars were used to purchase this property. We merely traded one asset for another. We had a fund that was created many years ago when the city sold some other property it owned. Due to the current market, that fund was earning less than 1 percent. The Mather Academy property became available at a very reduced price and we became interested. The property was owned by the David family and Mayor Graham’s family-owned company represented the Davids as their Realtor. Upon mention of the city purchasing the property, Mayor Graham immediately recused himself so that there would be no conflict of interest. The city retained its own Realtor and eventually an agreement was reached. As far as the real estate commission goes, Mayor Graham did receive some funds. His firm received one-half of the commission which amounted to approximately $18,000. The other half of the commission was paid to your Realtor. I, as a practicing attorney in real estate law for over 30 years, see absolutely nothing wrong with the way this was handled. I have heard that some believe that the mayor should have given his commission to the city. I ask which of you would be willing to give up the hundreds of hours a year that the mayor works and take the abuse that this man has taken for $10,000 a year. The demand that he give the commission to the city is not only unreasonable but absurd.

The next question would be “Do we have the revenue stream to build the building and staff the facility?” The answer to this question is two-fold. With regard to whether we, you and I, can build this building without raising taxes, the answer is as follows: Although I cannot tell you with 100 percent certainty that we can because we don’t, as of this date, have plans and specs so that we might have knowledge of the cost of the building. I can say with 100 percent accuracy that if we don’t have a sufficient revenue stream to build the building, we will not build. I can also say with 100 percent accuracy that with the current estimates of the cost of construction, we, your council, believe that we can build the facility without using all of the hospitality tax dollars. We have inquired as to whether this use of the hospitality tax is appropriate under state law and have been advised by our bond attorney, Margaret Pope, who helped write the state statute, that this is an appropriate use of these funds. The second part has to do with the staffing of the facility. We do not have funds to staff the facility. Therefore, we started looking for partners to help us. Contrary to the information on the “streets,” we have approached both the county council and the school system for assistance. At this time, while they have not told us no, they have declined to participate. We asked the YMCA of Columbia to partner with us by providing all of the equipment, staffing and management of the facility and they have agreed to negotiate a contract with the city to accomplish these goals. I have also heard that partnering with the YMCA of Columbia is not a good deal because all of the money generated will be going to Columbia. This belief is not correct. First of all, the facility will be staffed by citizens and teenagers from this community, therefore, creating jobs here and, secondly, the YMCA is a nonprofit organization. One of the reasons that attempts at maintaining a YMCA here have failed before is that the attempt was funded solely by taking dollars generated here. The YMCA of Columbia operates at least five other YMCAs and, therefore, has the option of moving dollars from one community to another. For instance if the YMCA here was underperforming and the YMCA in Orangeburg was making a profit, they would have the ability to move funds from Orangeburg to Camden, or vice versa.

In closing I would like to say to you that we are your public servants elected by our constituents to make the decisions that are in the best interests of the city as a whole. Do we currently have a conflict with the wishes of some of our constituents? Yes, but that is the nature of this venture because it requires the conviction to go forward with the idea that you have already approved in the Comprehensive Land Use plan and the DPZ Study. I cannot guarantee that this venture will be a success just as I cannot guarantee that you will wake up in the morning. What I can guarantee is that if we do nothing, we will allow our beloved city to slip back into the “never-never land” of slow deterioration. This type of facility is available in Hartsville, Darlington, Orangeburg, Chesterfield and five different locations in Columbia. I ask that you look at the real facts, trust your public servants and help us move forward.

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