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Bethune council continues discussion on school referendum

Posted: September 12, 2014 2:11 p.m.
Updated: September 15, 2014 6:00 a.m.
Gary Phillips/C-I

Bethune Town Councilman John Fulmer, along with the entire council, are asking voters to not approve the school referendum that would result in the closing of Bethune Elementary School.

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Residents of Bethune and the surrounding area appear to be hoping a referendum to authorize Phase 2 of the Kershaw County School District’s facilities equalization program fails in the November general election.

If approved by voters, the plan is to build five new schools and renovate five others, with a total cost of approximately $130 million. One of the new schools would be a consolidated elementary school near North Central High School that would take students from Bethune, Mt. Pisgah and Baron DeKalb elementary schools. Those three schools would then be closed.

A separate ballot item in November is a question to approve a 1-cent sales tax that school district officials say would pay for the school projects without an increase in property taxes. Bethune Councilman John Fulmer outlined four possibilities for the November vote at the council meeting Thursday.

1. The referendum and the sales tax could both pass.

2. The referendum could pass and the sales tax could fail.

3. The referendum could fail and the sales tax could pass.

4. The referendum and sales tax could both fail.

Fulmer said the two scenarios that cause the most concern are the second and third, where the referendum and the sales tax do not pass or fail together.

“Let’s say the referendum fails, but the sales tax passes. In this case the school district is going to have somewhere between $5 million and $6 million extra coming in each year to put into their budget. They can use that money for capital improvements, repairs, things like that,” Fulmer said. “The worst-case scenario is if the referendum passes, but the sales tax doesn’t pass. Where will they get the money to pay for it? Property taxes is all they’ll have to fall back on.”

Kershaw County Councilman Tom Gardner represents District 6, which includes Bethune. He attended the meeting and said the $130 million referendum is more acceptable to voters in areas that are more densely populated. He said smaller referendums every few years to finance projects in specific communities would be a wiser method, but voters are largely reluctant to approve a referendum that doesn’t directly benefit their own area.

“The reality is, referendums are buying votes,” Gardner said. “You’re trying to do things in different parts of the county to get people to vote for it and that’s what makes it balloon.”

Councilman John Heflin said he knows of groups opposed to the referendum in other areas of Kershaw County and they would be stronger if they bonded together to fight the referendum, even though their reasons may be different. He said a Camden group opposed to building a new football stadium at Camden High School and dismantling historic Zemp Stadium could prove to be a good ally.

“There is a group in Camden that is fighting to save Zemp Stadium.” Heflin said. “They have asked to form a group with people from Bethune to fight the referendum. The people of Bethune have continued to be discriminated against because we choose to live in a rural area. There’s no other elementary school or high school student that lives in the Camden area, the Lugoff and Elgin area that (is required) to ride a bus, which we have to. We need to probably officially organize a group to fight this.”

In other council business, Mayor Charles McCoy announced that he received a phone call from Councilman Joe Casey, who said he is resigning from the council due to out-of-town work obligations. McCoy said the resignation has to be submitted in writing to be official and he expects to soon receive a letter from Casey. Kershaw County Voter Registration Director John Caughman told the Chronicle-Independent on Friday that the Nov. 4 ballot has been set, so a special election will be necessary to fill Casey’s council seat after he officially resigns.

Councilman Don Witham said bids had been received and opened for the repair and painting of the town’s water tower. He said the bid amounts were more than expected, but the work has to be done to meet standards set by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control. The contract was awarded to Municipal Tank Coating and Sandblasting Inc. of Hamlet, N.C., for $88,000. Witham said the work is expected to begin in six to eight weeks.

McCoy gave an update on the sale of two surplus vehicles: a fire truck and a Ford Crown Victoria. He said the legally required advertising asking for sealed bids would be done in the next two weeks.

Fulmer also gave a report regarding the ongoing problem of unsightly properties in Bethune.

“I reported the meeting before last that we were looking into an ordinance where we could impose a series of fines on nuisance properties. I have to report to you tonight that we can’t do that. It’s a violation of South Carolina code of law,” Fulmer said. “About all we can do to these people with nuisance property is for the town to go in and clean it up and send them a bill for it. We’ve talked about the impracticality of that in the past and what it would cost the town. Some of the estimates I’ve gotten so far for some of these properties -- $20,000, $25,000 -- we don’t have the money to do that and we’d never get our money back on it.”

Fulmer said he has consulted with the Santee-Lynches Regional Council of Governments for advice on what other towns and counties have been able to do to resolve the problem in their areas.    

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