City Council moving toward fee increases
By Bobby Bryant
A grim Darlington City Council last week moved toward making a series of decisions that could cost the average city household $186 a year in fee increases.
Council is under pressure to raise water and sewer rates at least $9.55 a month (depending on water usage) and to raise sanitation fees $6 a month to keep those departments operating. But members are also under pressure to hold off because of the personal and financial stresses that the coronavirus crisis has dumped on residents.
If OK’d, the city’s water rates would rise 40 percent; sewer rates, 60 percent; sanitation fees, 28 percent. (But council members have said the city’s fees for these types of services are considerably lower than those charged by other local municipalities.)
“The timing is bad,” argued council member Sheila Baccus during council’s May 5 monthly meeting, held by video and broadcast on Facebook because of the virus threat. Even though the public couldn’t attend, city planner Lisa Chalian-Rock read letters and e-mails sent by residents protesting the proposed fee hikes, which were outlined in fliers inserted into the city’s water bills.
Baccus also said she thinks those departments’ money problems are being caused at least in part by bad management, and she asked for an audit to determine if city money is being “wasted.”
Mayor Curtis Boyd told council that no one wants to charge residents more for these services. “I do not want to raise water fees,” Boyd said. “However, they have to be raised in some form or fashion.”
“ … It’s got to be raised,” Boyd said. “Today, we’re going to make a move forward.”
“If we don’t raise rates, we need to sell the water/sewer system,” City Manager Howard Garland told council. “ … We can’t put a Band-Aid on this anymore.” But even if the system were sold to a private company, they would still have to raise rates, Garland said.
Council ultimately decided to plan a public hearing in June on the subject of raising water/sewer and sanitation fees. If the hikes are approved, council seems to be leaning toward having them take effect in August.
The issue is likely to be debated again at two work sessions on the city’s budget for next fiscal year. The sessions are scheduled May 18-19. Stormwater fees are also expected to be on the table for a possible increase.
Also last week, tensions on council rose when former Mayor Gloria Hines, who Boyd defeated in November 2019, lost out on her bid for a seat on the city Planning Commission to applicant Mike Wiggins.
Council member Baccus said the city needs more African-Americans on its boards and commissions, “instead of a majority of Caucasians. … There’s enough racism in this city as it is.”
“Stop being racist,” she said.
Rock told her that the application forms for seats on city boards and commissions do not ask candidates to state their race. “We would not know what color anybody is, based on the form we receive.”
Baccus and council member Elaine Reed indicated they both had committed to support Hines for the Planning Commission seat.
In other business:
— Council gave final approval to an economic-development incentives package for a Holt Brothers barbecue restaurant that’s being built on South Main Street. Council was told that the restaurant represents a $150,000 capital investment.
— Council agreed to give the Greater Darlington Chamber of Commerce $15,000 to support the chamber’s annual summer Freedom Fest, normally held at Darlington Raceway. The chamber has sponsored the event for several years and the city has always helped finance it, but this time, the coronavirus pandemic is making things uncertain.
“We have no idea at this point what is going to be feasible,” chamber representative Nancy Matthews said. At a minimum, “We intend to have an event, with fireworks,” even if people must view the show from their cars.
City Council agreed to back the chamber’s $15,000 request with some strings attached. The city will be refunded if the event is canceled, and the chamber must file invoices as it spends the city’s money. “We think even in this unprecedented time, it’s good value for the city,” Matthews said.
— Council was told that repairing a collapsed sewer line on East Broad Street, near Scarlett’s Antiques, is going to be painfully expensive and complex. The line, many decades old and made of terra-cotta pipe, is 22 feet underground. Consultants estimated the cost of pipe replacement, related repairs, earth-moving and repaving at $1.25 million. The city has applied for grants to help finance the work, but council was told grants could only provide $500,000.
“Guys, we’re in for it,” Reed said. “We’ve got a mess,” Boyd agreed.
— Council agreed to open the city’s swimming pool for the summer on July 8, assuming that the coronavirus pandemic has lessened and assuming that the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and Gov. Henry McMaster’s office agree that it’s safe.
— Council members agreed to move ahead and draw up an ordinance calling for a $100 fine (after five days) if residents dump “bulky refuse” – couches, recliners, mattresses and the like – at the sidewalk in front of their homes.
— City Manager Garland reported that City Hall, from the old council chamber near the back of the building to the front entrance, underwent “an emergency deep-clean” recently after a water department employee appeared to have COVID-19-like symptoms. The employee was sent home for two weeks. Cost of the deep-cleaning was about $8,500; the city will ask the federal government to cover it as a coronavirus-related expense.