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‘Bethune is special’

Town council candidates meet public at forum

Posted: October 31, 2013 4:42 p.m.
Updated: November 1, 2013 5:00 a.m.
Haley Atkinson/C-I

Bethune residents listened intently to candidates for town council and mayor at Tuesday’s meeting. The meeting was held at the Bethune Women’s Club and allowed each candidate to present his platform and then answer questions from the audience.

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A Bethune mayoral candidate and four of six candidates for Bethune Town Council seats appeared at a forum Tuesday night at the Bethune Women’s Club. Many residents took the opportunity to hear the candidates’ platforms and ask them questions.

Those attending the forum included mayoral candidates Charles McCoy and council seat candidates John Fulmer, John Heflin, Richard Watts and Don Witham. Incumbent Mayor Carlisle Davis and incumbent Councilman Jimmy Steen, as well as council candidate Linda Short, did not appear. Mediator Jackie Knight explained that each candidate would have five minutes to present his platform. Knight also said candidates would have one and a half minutes to respond to audience members’ questions.

McCoy said he has been involved in the Bethune community since moving to town 42 years ago. He said he was a volunteer firefighter in Bethune, working his way to becoming fire chief. McCoy said holding that position for 27 years taught him about leadership.

McCoy said that he felt most people wanted the same thing: “to better the town.” He added that he knew it would take work, “but we’re up for the challenge.” McCoy’s plans for Bethune included seeking out grants to repair water lines and grants to beautify downtown. He also said he wants to bring more business and industry to town.

McCoy said he wants to keep the town informed about council’s business.

“People should know what the town is doing. They should know what we take in and what we put out,” he said.

McCoy said he would make budget information public. He also spoke about the need for council to attend Kershaw County Council and Kershaw County Board of School Trustees meetings in an effort “to save Bethune Elementary.”

“We need to show our face, we need to be seen, we need to be heard,” McCoy said.

Speaking next, Fulmer voiced his concerns over a Kershaw County School District plan to place a referendum on the 2014 ballot to fund Phase 2 of the district facilities equalization plan. Fulmer said he was worried the referendum will lead the district to close Bethune and Mt. Pisgah elementary schools.

We need to act “right now, we can’t wait,” he said.

Fulmer also spoke about the need for town government to be accessible.

“The information needs to get out quicker,” Fulmer said, “and it needs to get to everybody.”

He proposed having the town host a community meeting once a quarter where residents could converse freely with council members, asking questions and receiving answers.

Fulmer also voiced the need to work to make the town look better to attract new residents, new businesses and shopping interest. He said Bethune should become involved with both the Municipal Association of South Carolina (MASC) and the Santee-Lynches Council of Governments (S-LCOG), saying both could help Bethune locate grant money.

Heflin, a former town councilman, repeated the slogan he adopted for his campaign, “Together we can make a difference,” saying that he believes Bethune “can get back to those glory days.” He suggested adding some signs to the town’s entrances and possibly repairing an existing sign entering Bethune from McBee.

Heflin spoke of his current involvement with a safe community commission and previous involvement with town council, saying he is “not afraid to ask tough questions. I’ll go to Washington.”

Some of Heflin’s other goals for Bethune include increased police coverage, updating the water system, the need for development of products like ethanol on available farmland in town, research and development of solar power and the preservation of Bethune Elementary School (BES).

Heflin also mentioned some things he had already helped bring to Bethune.

“The cell phone tower that we were able to get, that took two phone calls. I asked members of council at that time if we could do this,” he said.

Heflin said his attitude is that “if you never ask, you will never know,” adding that he is very willing to ask.

He said he also made a phone call at one point and was able to fill an empty building in the town with weight-lifting equipment.

“That just came from a phone call,” he said.

Watts followed Heflin, and started by saying Bethune needs more police coverage.

“Glen’s doing the best he can, but he can’t do it all by himself,” Watts said, referring to Bethune Police Chief Glen Davis.

Watts said another concern of his is updating the water system.

“We have good water, but this system … is going to start giving us problems and it’s going to start costing us money,” Watts said.

He suggested Bethune start looking into ways to update the water system, including fire hydrants. He said increasing water flow to fire hydrants could cut down on residents’ homeowner’s insurance policies.

Watts also shared his interest in looking for grants to update the water system and to possibly provide new hydrants throughout the town. He said Bethune needed to make an effort to get involved with the MASC or S-LCOG

“(Or) we’re not going to be able to do anything and we’re going to see this town go the way of Lynchburg or several other small towns in our area that just dried up and have blown away. They were beautiful towns back in their prime, but the people in town lost interest, they lost their schools, they lost business because who wants to raise children in a town with no schools?” Watts asked.

He also warned that if Bethune does not get involved “and fight,” it could potentially lose BES. Watts said if the town is able to keep BES open, it needs to “get after the county” to make repairs at the school.

“This school building is in worse shape than any other school building in this county and it should not be like that,” Watts said. “We pay taxes just like anybody else. We pay just as much taxes. We’re all paying for school systems that we will never see … until we have a town government that is willing to fight … and stand up and say we’re not going to take it anymore, it’s going to continue to happen and we’re going to dry up and blow away.”

Witham, also a former town councilman, spoke last, starting with the water system, bringing pieces of lead pipes once connected to the town’s water line.

“This is not too bad,” Witham said, “but if you were to rub your hand in there you’d pull out rust and that’s going into all of our houses.”

He said the infrastructure had to be fixed “with grants because we cannot afford to do it,” but reiterated that repairs to the system were essential.

Witham then spoke about the need for the town to get more involved with organizations such as the S-LCOG, county council and MASC.

“We have got to get our face out there,” he said.

Witham also advocated for “improved meeting procedures” for council.

“If I didn’t live here and I read your (news)paper I would say ‘What is going on in that town?’” he said. “My recommendation is county council has a procedure, KershawHealth board has a procedure, city council has a procedure and at their meetings people can speak … town representatives keep their mouths shut. That’s their regular meeting. We need a regular process (like that).”

Witham said he would be in favor of meeting once a quarter and allowing council members to answer residents’ questions.

He, too, spoke about fighting to protect BES and organizing a local campaign to support local businesses.

“If we can buy it in Bethune, then we should. If people see we’re supporting our local businesses, then that will attract new businesses,” Witham said.

Keith Arnold, owner of Bethune Discount Grocery, was the first to ask a question, focused on police protection.

“I didn’t know Glen until he took the job and he’s done an excellent job and I think the town can afford that, but how do y’all plan to pay for a second officer?”

Heflin said grant money might be available for a second officer.

“The (police department) for the city of Camden has acquired a lot of these funds,” Heflin said, adding that the topic of acquiring such grants was a topic discussed by the safe community commission on which he serves. “There is money out there.”

Resident John McLaurin asked who was in control of the water system and asked how he could be sure he was drinking clean water. Councilwoman Beverly Farmer was present in the audience and answered McLaurin.

“We have an outside department test the water regularly,” Farmer said. “We have an operator put the chemicals in and … so far all the (S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control) tests have come back positive lately.”

Resident Frank Wilson discussed the need for grants. He suggested that some town residents -- namely those candidates not present at the forum -- weren’t concerned with the town’s wellbeing and longevity. He asked whether or not the town would have to pay back grants if they were located.

Fulmer said there are “two types of grants -- contingency and non-contingency,” with contingency grants requiring the town provide a certain amount of money to be able to receive a certain amount in return.

“We need to search for non-contingency grants,” he said, so that Bethune would not owe any money at any time.

Resident Diane Graham asked if it would be advantageous to change the town’s limits. Graham said that many other towns do that.

Witham said that when he served on council in the 1990’s, there was talk of annexation.

“It’s a very expensive process,” he said. “The town itself has to vote to take in wherever you draw the revised lines. There has to be a vote of those people that we would like to annex. Both of those have to pass. Then you can go forward. It’s heavily costly from a legal standpoint and it takes a lot of footwork.”

Witham said council decided not to pursue annexation at that time because of the cost.

“But it is an option,” he said, “and somewhere down the road we may have to consider it.”

An unidentified resident said “everyone should go see that elementary school.” She said it was a good school and that the teachers taught the students at a high level.

“We have to support our school and our students and our teachers,” she said emphatically, drawing applause from the crowd. “We just need a little help, and if we don’t stand up for them no one will.”

Another unidentified resident spoke out on the same topic.

“It’s the county’s agenda to have (a) combined high school, which they have, combined middle school, which they have and combined elementary school. What makes you think they’re going to make Bethune special and give you your own elementary school?” she saked.

“Well Bethune is special,” McCoy responded. “We pay our tax dollars to Kershaw County just like everyone else does. Yes, we are going to fight to save this grammar school here. You know, the tax money goes all over the county and we never get our fair share and which is a fair share, I don’t know, but it is time they recognize we are a part of Kershaw County and they need to give us our fair share.”

McCoy said a committee would be formed and it would be attending council and school board meetings.

“There’s going to have to be a solution. They’re going to have to listen to us because we’re going to go down there and do some talking,” he said.

Fulmer agreed.

“If the school board meets to talk about closing our school, what do you think they would do if they’re sitting there and all of y’all sitting there staring them in the face,” Fulmer said. “You don’t think that would make a difference?”

He also said that there was no more time for the people of Bethune to wait.

“It has to be done now,” he said.

Arnold, the first to ask a question, added that town residents need to get to know each other better and start supporting each other.

Heflin said there are people on school board and county council who do not favor closing BES.

“We have to come up with a strategic plan,” Heflin said, suggesting that a plan would not only have to appeal to county council and the school district, but bring more residents to boost attendance at BES.

Other residents also voiced their concern about the possible closing of BES with an overall spirit of banding together as a town to fight for its survival, along with the possibility of re-drawing school attendance lines. McCoy, Fulmer, Heflin and Witham all expressed that they would expend efforts to see if that could happen.

Resident Carolyn Caldwell voiced an interest in economic development in the town, asking what could be done to increase such development.

Heflin suggested affordable housing as one area that could attract new residents, later clarifying that “affordable housing” did not necessarily suggest low-income housing. Heflin also pointed out that Bethune is “sitting on one of the largest aquifers in the world” which could be a great selling point for industry. He said the abundance of open land and Bethune’s proclivity to produce corn could be a strong selling point as well.

Further discussion continued about the need to attract industry to Bethune with residents and candidates agreeing that increased industry would drive up the town’s population which would, in turn, drive up attendance at BES.

The meeting concluded with Knight reminding all that Election Day is Tuesday. Knight said the election would be held at the Women’s Club from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Bethune will be the first community in Kershaw County to have to abide by new photo identification rules in an election. According to a press release from the S.C. Election Commission, all voters will be asked to provide one of the following types of photo identification at polling places:

• S.C. driver’s license

• S.C. DMV Identification Card

• S.C. Voter registration card with a photo

• federal military ID

• U.S. passport.

Voters who forget to bring their ID with them may vote by provisional ballot that will count only if they show their photo ID to the election commission prior to the election’s certification.

For more information, visit www.scvotes.org.

 

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