County hears public opinions on courthouse future

At County Council’s Feb. 5 meeting, the Darlington County Fire District recognized firefighters (left to right) Lonnie Eldridge, Alex Shoemake, and Kenny Stratton as their top responders for 2017. Photo by Samantha Lyles

By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, slyles@newsandpress.net

At their February 5 regular meeting, Darlington County Council heard the results of several listening sessions held last fall to garner public input on the future of the County Courthouse. The resulting consensus, according to session facilitator Charles Weathers, was that “leaving the courthouse as it is, is definitely not an option.”

Weathers and his associates from The Weathers Group of Columbia conducted five sessions at the Hartsville Library, Darlington County Courthouse, Lamar Library, Darlington Music Hall, and in Society Hill. One hundred and ten people attended these sessions, mostly in Hartsville and Darlington, and facilitators asked for their opinions about leaving the courthouse as-is, renovating the current building, or constructing a new facility. They were also asked to weigh financing options, which included levying property taxes or adding a penny sales tax to all county retail purchases to pay for the project.

Weathers’ report stated that attendees felt “there was not enough information to make an informed financial decision” just yet, especially without an approximate dollar amount for the cost of the courthouse project. His report noted that many session participants were against a property tax increase, and felt that a penny sales tax “could be beneficial because guest/visitors that come for races could pay a significant amount of the costs.”

Charles C. Weathers, Sr. presented Council with the results of several listening sessions which garnered public input on the future of the Darlington County Courthouse.
Photo by Samantha Lyles

Should the county choose to pursue the penny sales tax as a financing option, voters would have to approve a referendum on the November 2018 ballot. If the county fails to complete research and preparation for such a vote before that time, they would not be able to propose a penny sales tax referendum until the next general election in 2020.

When asked if they had any other questions or concerns they wanted relayed to County Council, session guests asked the following:
What happens to the old building? What’s the cost for demolition? What will be in place of the old building? What effect would a millage increase have on attracting new businesses to the area? What is the sales tax in the surrounding counties?

They also requested a scale that shows some comparison of sales tax and property taxes of surrounding counties. Some conveyed their conviction that it is very important for the new courthouse to be in the downtown area of Darlington, but Weathers noted that sentiment was expressed mainly by guests at the Courthouse session.

Weathers said the county’s next steps should include a needs assessment, an engineering study, and a feasibility analysis so that the county can make an informed financial decision.

County administrator Charles Stewart proposed that Council convene a work session this month to discuss financing options and firm up their course of action. A work session was scheduled for February 19 at 2 p.m. at the Courthouse Annex (1625 Harry Byrd Hwy in Darlington). This work session will be for discussion purposes only with no voting action taken, and it will be open to the public.
Also on the agenda at this meeting, Council approved receipt of $150,000 to triple treat and repair degraded roads in the Timberchase Subdivision. The county will contribute $170,000 to complete this project.

Council again carried over two ordinances related to a potential $300 million investment in solar energy.

Ordinances No. 17-17 would offer FILOT (Fee In Lieu Of Tax) agreements with an unnamed company involved in a solar energy development plan code named “Project Dates.” The ordinance extract states that “many solar projects are looking at South Carolina,” and the “conversion of agricultural property to solar property can produce significant increases in property tax revenue.” The extract also states that the unnamed company has represented that incentives are critical to their locating in Darlington County.

The company has assured Darlington County that a series of expenditures totaling over $300 million will be invested in 17 different solar power facilities before December 31 of 2022. Tax map searches for properties named in Project Dates show several small parcels and several large parcels scattered across multiple locations throughout the county.

Ordinance No. 17-18, would enlarge the boundaries of the Darlington-Florence Industrial Park to include property owned or operated by Project Dates.

Author: Duane Childers

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