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Bethune welcomes new town council member

Posted: February 16, 2015 9:11 a.m.
Updated: February 16, 2015 9:13 a.m.
Gary Phillips/C-I

Bethune Councilman Don Witham has been working to obtain grant and loan money to upgrade the town’s aging water system. He said at council’s Thursday meeting that the first requirement was to prove the town legally exists. Here, he shows the audience a copy of the application for the Bethune Town Charter in 1900.

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Bethune Town Council is officially back up to a full roster of five with Thursday’s swearing in of Cynthia Hunter, who was voted into office in a special election Jan. 27. Hunter will serve the remainder of the term left by the resignation of Joe Casey, which runs through the end of this year.

Bethune Municipal Judge Cody Mitchell administered the oath of office to Hunter as her husband Avery, held the Bible on which she placed her left hand.

Bethune council members are elected “at large,” meaning they represent the entire town rather than specific districts and all registered voters in town can choose the entire council. Voter turnout on Jan 27 was reported to be only around 16 percent of the eligible voters, a situation Councilman Don Witham said was disappointing.

“There are 271 eligible voters in this town. Forty-three cast ballots on Cynthia’s election. That 15.8 percent. It’s pitiful that we are such a small town, fairly close knit and 15 percent of the population shows up to vote for a council person,” Witham said. “That just floored me.”

Witham also gave his monthly update on the progress being made to restore and refurbish the town’s water tower. The work has been underway for nearly a month and Witham said it is expected to be finished within two weeks, depending on the weather. He also said the new picnic shelter at Copeland Park has been finished and dedicated and is ready for use.

“They’re making excellent progress. It should be completed in two weeks,” Witham said of the water tower. “We now have a picnic shelter that is open for business, so Sunday is a nice, warm day, so go down and have a nice picnic at the new picnic shelter.”

Witham also said the first steps in obtaining grant money to upgrade the town water system have been taken, but it is expected to be a long and detailed process.

“We’re working with the RDA (Rural Development Authority) trying to get a grant-loan combination for the water infrastructure. As we get into these things, we learn a lot. The first thing we had to do was prove our existence. I happened to locate a gentleman in the archives of the state and, if anybody is interested in history, I have the initial application for the charter for the town of Bethune,” Witham said, holding up the document. “We were chartered June 11, 1900. There’s a lot of familiar names, a lot of history here. You’re welcome to take a look at it.”

Witham said the town also had to prove it has the right to be in the water business. He said legislative acts, one dated 1896, were found in the archives that said towns have the right to provide water to their residents Another act from 1946 said towns could extend their water service beyond their city limits, good news as some of Bethune’s water customers are outside of town.

“We had to go through that formality. Once we get past that little hurdle, then we can start the application process. This is probably going to be a two- to three-year process. The government in all its speed is hurrying along here,” Witham said. “The second thing we’ve learned is, we’re going to have to have a substantial increase in our water rates. Exactly what they’re going to be, we’re not sure, but we will keep you posted as we go along. We have the lowest rate, by far, of any local municipality in the state. They want to know that we have the ability to pay back a loan that they are going to help us get. The way they insure our payment ability is they make sure our water rates are up.”

At January’s council meeting, the purchase of up to four security lights to be placed around Bethune was approved. Mayor Charles McCoy gave an update on that project.

“We’re going to get together in the next couple of days to see where we need to place those lights. The town did approve four lights, so we can look and see what we need to put out there,” McCoy said. “We can still go with four if we need to.”

Councilman John Fulmer updated the council and audience on the town’s new “nuisance” ordinance that provides a series of fines for owners of unsightly and unkempt property. He said that as the council has discussed, crafted and passed the ordinance, some property owners saw what was coming and have made improvements to their properties voluntarily. He said registered letters will again be sent to the property owners telling them they have 30 days to clean up, then they will be subject to a town summons.

Witham talked about a proposal to purchase a message sign for the town that would be placed along one of the town’s busiest streets and would inform the public of events in town such as council meetings, church events, civic clubs and other items of interest. He used the poor turnout for the Jan. 27 election as an example of why Bethune residents need to be better informed of their town’s happenings. He said the estimated cost for such a sign is $20,000 and the messages would be entered and controlled at town hall.

“We’re going to initiate a fund and we’re going after foundations, individuals and clubs. We need to come up with a fund for $20,000, so it’s new effort we’re initiating,” Witham said. “This little town needs it We don’t have a focused newspaper. We don’t have a focused radio station.”

Also on the subject of keeping Bethune residents informed, Councilman John Heflin shared some ideas on making announcements through electronic media such as email and text messages.

“I called a few people in the school district and also called County Council Chairman (Julian) Burns and threw some ideas out there. This action would cost money, so I don’t think we should crawl or walk until we fully investigate it and find the funds for this. We have the ability to do what the school district does, where if there is an announcement that needs to get out, you can get it through texts or phone calls or emails. For 250 to 300 people it’s about $2,000 annually. Obviously, that’s a big hurdle we should haven’t have to climb right now,” Heflin said. “But it would do a lot of good. Hopefully, down the road there’s something where we could pair with the county as well as the city of Camden and the city of Elgin to do this. But, this would not solve the problem for a lot of people who do not have email.”

Heflin said people with smartphones can receive emails on their phones and when an announcement is sent out they would hopefully share the information with friends, family and neighbors who don’t have that phone technology. He said the idea would at least be better than what the town has now, which is nothing at all.

Heflin also reported on the formation of a new planning and zoning board for the town and a related board of appeals. He provided lists of interested residents who have said they would serve on the boards and the council unanimously voted to approve them. Board members have to take a training session before serving, but with a large group all at once Heflin said he hopes the training can be done in Bethune.

The names on the list for the planning and zoning board are Sylvia Davis, Will McCaskill, Eddie Mumford, Jennifer Kelly, Brenda Wilkes and Cynthia Mungo. The names on the list for the board of appeals are Ashley Hall, Justin Holman, Jimmy Lucas, Kenneth McCaskill, Cordin Wood, Amder King and Avery Hunter.

“I have seven people for the planning and zoning (board) and seven as well for the board of appeals, which we must have,” Heflin said. “It’s a mixture of young and old, which is good for diversity.”

Heflin also spoke on the selling of commemorative bricks as a fundraiser for Bethune Memorial Park walkway.

“I challenge each council member to sell 10 bricks. If we can get to 60 or 70, I think we’ll be ready to roll,” Heflin said.

Heflin provided a one-page flyer that said engraved 4-in.-by-8-in. bricks are $50 each and can have one or two lines of engraving of 16 characters per line. More information can be found at Bethune Town Hall or by calling 843-334-6238. The deadline to buy bricks is June 25.

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