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City council candidates tackle Htax, transparency

Posted: October 4, 2012 6:03 p.m.
Updated: October 5, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Laurie Parks

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Only about 70 people showed up for an “educated voters” forum Tuesday night at Camden High School featuring four candidates for two seats available on Camden City Council. A separate forum will be held Monday, Oct. 22, for two mayoral candidates.

The forum -- sponsored by the Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce, Kershaw County School District and Kershaw County Teacher Forum, and moderated by local radio personality Tyler Cupp -- highlighted some differences between two pairs of candidates. On one side of certain issues were incumbent Councilwoman Alfred Mae Drakeford, seeking a third term on council; and current Camden Planning Commission member Johnny Deal, who is looking to fill the seat being vacated by outgoing Councilman Pat Partin. On the other: challengers Peggy Ogburn, of the Department of Health and Human Services; and Camden Historic Landmarks Commission Chair (CHLC) Laurie Parks.

Following opening remarks from each candidate, Cupp asked six prepared questions and five submitted by audience members.

The biggest question of the night came midway in the proceedings, asking how each candidate would prefer to spend the city’s hospitality tax funds.

Deal said the hospitality tax now generates funds for the city that “was not  there” before being enacted in 2009, and that it can be used to support “tourism … promotions … and so forth.”

“I’m excited to have it,” Deal said, adding that he supports using such funds to build a proposed sports complex that may be managed by a third party, such as the YMCA of Columbia. “We have the money and somewhere to spend it. I’m excited to even have (the money) and I think the city is doing a good job on spending it.”

Drakeford said she believes council did the right thing in passing the hospitality tax three years ago.

“I thought of all the things we could do with it. What a great way to fund projects without increasing property taxes,” Drakeford said. “When we had the public forum about it, only two people showed up and they were in favor. It is designed for projects and tourist events. I think the things we are doing can be done, and I’m happy we can use it versus property taxes.”

Ogburn said she feels the money should be spent on historic preservation and renovations, suggesting McCaa’s tavern at Historic Camden and the possibly Bonds Conway-built house being converted into an African-American cultural center.

“Downtown needs to be spruced up,” Ogburn said, saying there are too many “shabby” buildings downtown. “We need to advertise more. We need tourists. We need a billboard out on I-20.”

Ogburn said she brought forward an idea to place a billboard in Florence, but that council rejected her proposal. She said the city of Columbia has three in Florence.

“They’re (tourists) bypassing us to get to Columbia,” Ogburn said.

She also suggested sending more hospitality tax funds to equine-related businesses.

“There are so many things … we could have used more of the $600,000 that’s available,” Ogburn said.

Parks noted that many cities have hospitality taxes to promote tourism and earn revenue. However, she said she feels the city could spend more of the money to help existing tourism sites. She also agreed with Ogburn that more needed to be done downtown to beautify “shabby” buildings, and advertise and promote the city.

“We’re located in the absolutely perfect spot … for daytrips,” Parks said.

Later, an audience member’s question touched on the tourism side of the equation, asking if there were any specific tourism ideas the candidates would or would not want the city to pursue.

Drakeford said tourism is very important to Camden.

“We are trying to build on what has been established,” Drakeford said, adding that when she travels and mentions she is from Camden, people respond by saying the city is where you can find antiques or go to horse races. “A mayor told me that tourism in her city had gone way above what was expected after they built a sports complex -- $1 million more than expected. We need to promote and make (tourism) what it can be for the city of Camden to grow.”

Obgurn suggested the city offer more tours -- from guided and bus tours to tours focused on the city’s African-American culture.

“We just need to be open about it, and it’s not just history; we need to encourage other things … and have open meetings to get input from the public,” she said.

Parks called tourism the No. 1 industry in South Carolina.

“We have a little piece of the pie, but we could use more,” Parks said. “Day-trippers -- I would love to see them use the train station.”

She said such tourists would shop, eat and visit antique stores in Camden.

“They’ll leave their money here and then go home,” she said.

Parks also suggested that an app be produced so people could take self-guided tours using their iPhone or other smartphone devices.

Deal said Camden was known as “the tourist town” when he was growing up. He talked about “synergy,” in that the city and county have to work together -- and that they already are.

“At one Rotary meeting, we had the mayor of Camden and the city manager, and the county council chairman and county administrator all at the same time. That has never happened before,” Deal said.

He said the city and county collaborated on creating the county’s new tourism director position. Prior to that, he said, no one had any accountability regarding tourism.

“Our current leadership has the sports complex on the brain,” Deal said. “My daughter plays volleyball and we go around the state, spending money in those towns. I’m not sure why we don’t have that here, but we have the vision to do that now.”

The issues of hospitality taxes and tourism has been bound with that of an alleged lack of transparency in city government affairs. One question from the audience asked the candidates to define transparency and how they would ensure maximum public participation.

“Transparency, to me, means putting everything out where everyone can see it,” Ogburn said, suggesting the city put more information on its website, especially in terms of finances. “I support openness in government. Council should not conduct business ahead of meetings. We need more public meetings and gatherings … getting opinions before decisions instead of after. I don’t want to see city officials come to a meeting and say something is a ‘done deal.’”

Parks acknowledged that there has been a lot of talk about transparency and that she has concern for all the people of Camden. She said she has been happy to see that audio of city council work sessions are now recorded.

“They’re (work sessions) not well attended, but they should be. It’s usually where you get the answers to your questions,” Parks said, saying the same of public input meetings. “They’re just not well attended at all, and that’s a shame. They’re your opportunity to ask, and there’s no such thing as a stupid question.”

Deal characterized government transparency as “huge,” and said that anything you want to know about the city is on its website. He noted that council is also considering broadcasting its meetings.

“You can also call (Asst. City Manager) Mel (Pearson) and ask him questions about the finances,” Deal said. “The city of Camden is not up to anything. I think they’re doing a good job.”

“I don’t understand what transparency means if that’s not what we’re doing,” Drakeford said. “All our meetings are public, the budget is open to all; if that’s not transparency, I don’t know what is. I do not do under the table deals. I’m open, I’m honest. I came in to city council with my integrity and I plan to leave with it. I don’t understand when people say we’re not transparent. If you have a question, you can come up to me and ask. With all the technology … you have the responsibility to educate yourself.

“If the other members of council are doing what they’re not supposed to do, they’re keeping it from me.”

Other prepared questions touched on the city’s council-manager form of government, ordinances they might want to repeal, the city’s new “Grab Life” branding campaign, “A” bond rating, and council’s strategic planning and its effects on the budget.

Concerning the city’s bond rating, Obgurn and Parks both said there is room for improvement, while Deal and Drakeford said the city could not do what it’s been able to accomplish without the financial responsibility that earned it an “A.”

“It’s good, but it’s not the best it could be,” Ogburn said. “We have to be careful. We have $64 million in total debt. Our cash reserve is not as much as it could be. We have in the works, a $3.1 million road diet, $3 million to renovate city hall -- which has to be done; it’s in violation of federal law -- $20 million the city estimates with the TIF (tax incremental financing) district and another $8 million for the sports complex. That’s $99 million of debt and we have only about 7,000 residents.

“How are we going to pay for that? Increased taxes and fees?”

Parks agreed with Ogburn saying the “A” is not the best, and said the existing $64 million figure Ogburn mentioned includes $40 million for a new S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control-mandated wastewater treatment plant.

“We can’t be frivolous and fund every project that comes along,” Parks said.

Deal said that the “A” rating is good, keeping the city from having to pay extra interest on its bonds and other loans.

“They’re not going to give an ‘A’ to a city that isn’t taking care of business,” he said.

Drakeford agreed with Deal, noting that while S&P maintained its “A” rating, Moody’s increased its rating of the city’s finances increased.

“You don’t just ‘get’ and ‘A,’” Drakeford said, saying cities have to earn them. “It … demonstrates that we are doing appropriate spending. If we had poor habits, you can bet your bottom dollar we wouldn’t receive an ‘A.’”

In regard to the strategic planning process and the budget, Drakeford noted that the city has had to deal with reduced state funds.

“But you still expect the same services -- infrastructure, safe neighborhood and improving the downtown business district -- and we’ve accomplished all those,” Drakeford said. “We did that without any layoffs or furloughs, and we continue to invest in improvements.”

Drakeford said council uses the strategic plan to develop the plan, adding that “as long as it’s working for us, we will continue to use it.”

Ogburn didn’t dispute Drakeford’s claim that the city hasn’t laid off or furloughed employees, and that they even received raises.

“But that didn’t cover all their (rising) medical costs, so some employees have salaries that are (effectively) lower than before,” Ogburn said.

Saying she wasn’t familiar with the entire planning process, Ogburn said she there were “good things” about, but wasn’t sure how it affects the budget. Instead, she said she wanted to go back to the hospitality tax issue.

“Small business -- when they agreed to it (hospitality tax), they thought they would see an increase in business. I don’t think the city is living up to its promises,” Ogburn said.

Parks said she has never worked on a strategic plan nor implemented a budget, but indicated it seemed to be a good idea. She also hoped that the city would be able to hire another grant writer, calling grants a “huge boost” to the city.

Deal mentioned that his late father helped Camden obtain a local option sales tax, whose revenues refund most city property taxes to residents.

“You’ve got to have the vision,” he said. “The first year I lived in the city, I paid zero property tax. And the city’s ‘pay as you go’ policy -- that’s outstanding. We do help downtown, with the façade grants, up to $2,500. Between the hospitality tax and local option sales tax, most of the citizens of Camden benefit.”

Audience questions touched on an annual $2 million transfer from the city’s utility fund to its general fund; how candidates would like to see the city grow during the next 10 years; and whether city officials, family members or businesses should engage in financial transactions with the city.

Deal, Drakeford and Ogburn expressed no problems with the utility to general fund transfer. Parks, however, said at least part of the $2 million should be used to help revitalize the city, including the eastern and western parts of the city as well as Dusty Bend.

Parks and Deal both mentioned annexation as a way to grow the city, giving out-of-city water and sewer customers a break on fees for those services. Drakeford said the city needs to attract more businesses, because they -- as opposed to residents -- provide the tax base to pay for capital and infrastructure improvements. Ogburn said the only way to attract either residents or businesses is to improve downtown Camden, mentioning mayoral candidate Tony Scully’s business advisory council. She said it is looking at city policies and how they help or hinder attracting businesses to downtown.

“We need to talk with business, not just dictate to them what’s going to be available,” Ogburn said.

As for a city official’s ties to transactions with the city, all four candidates agreed that if such transactions were deemed legal, they had no problem with them.



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