Fee increases pass City Council’s first vote
By Bobby Bryant
It wasn’t unanimous, but Darlington City Council last week took the first of two votes to raise fees on city services – increases expected to cost the typical household about $216 more per year.
Meeting by video on June 2 (because of COVID-19 concerns), council gave initial approval to plans that would:
–Raise city water/sewer rates by $9.55 a month for residential and commercial users. That’s a 40 percent increase for water and a 60 percent increase for sewer, but council members argue that the city’s rates for those services have been significantly lower than other local towns’, and that increases can’t be avoided if the water/sewer system is going to keep operating.
— Raise sanitation rates by $6 per month for households and businesses. That takes them from $22.50 a month to $28.50, a 28 percent increase.
— Raise stormwater rates by $2.50 a month for residential customers; rates for businesses would rise based on businesses’ size, with a minimum charge of $25 a month.
Council members Sheila Baccus and Elaine Reed voted against raising water/sewer fees, a change that would take effect Aug. 1. “I have received so many calls asking me not to support it,” Reed said. “I know it’s needed. I want to support it. … (but) I’m going to vote nay.” Baccus has argued the timing is bad because of the COVID-19 crisis and the economic collapse it’s caused.
Baccus also voted against raising the city’s sanitation fee and stormwater fee, which both would take effect Aug. 1. But council planned more discussions about the stormwater fee and its take-effect date, so the details might change.
Council members and Mayor Curtis Boyd have said repeatedly that they don’t want to raise fees in the middle of the national coronavirus pandemic and the tens of millions of layoffs it has left in its wake. But they have also said these fees have to be increased.
“If we don’t raise rates,” City Manager Howard Garland told council last month, “we need to sell the water/sewer system. … We can’t put a Band-Aid on this anymore.”
Despite the planned fee increases, council has no plans to raise property taxes. Last week, members approved a tax millage rate of 128.4 mills, which city officials said was unchanged.
In other business during its “virtual meeting” June 2:
— Council gave initial approval to a plan that would fine residents who dump “bulky refuse” – mattresses, air conditioners, couches, recliners, etc. – on the sidewalk in front of their home. After seven days, the city would put a $100 fine on the resident’s water bill. Boyd said this kind of dumping “trashes the town. … It makes us look trashy.” Even though many residents seem to believe the city will pick up things like mattresses, it’s not the city’s responsibility.
— Council was told that the Darlington Chamber of Commerce’s Freedom Fest at Darlington Raceway was being moved from its usual July date to Sept. 19. “This (has) been done after long thought and discussions with DHEC,” the chamber said in a news release. “We are anticipating by September the (virus) restrictions will be lessened so that we will be able to have live music and amusement rides, and of course, fireworks.”
— Council agreed to continue a $4,950 contract between the city and Mayor Boyd’s Fitness World gyms that grants city employees, retired city employees and their family a discounted membership (about $22 a year). Boyd said the contract dates back eight to 10 years, long before he ran for mayor in 2019. Baccus argued that the work should be put out for bids – “You’re supposed to put everything out for bid.”
(In a May council work session that touched on Boyd’s contract, Baccus told council: “He was not the mayor then; he is the mayor now … so in all fairness, if you are going to do it right and proper — which y’all seem to have a problem doing it right and proper — it needs to be bidded out and done fairly and properly.”)
Council members had asked if they had to end the contract now that Boyd was mayor; they were advised that it was OK since the contract began long before Boyd’s tenure in office. And they were told that there were no other possible bidders in the city limits except the YMCA, which would cost the city far more, based on the YMCA’s original bid for the contract years ago.
Councilman John Milling moved to extend the city’s existing contract with Boyd’s gyms. A majority of council agreed to the idea. Boyd recused himself from the vote. Council members Reed and Baccus voted no.
— Council declined – at least for now – an offer Boyd had received from someone willing to sell the city a used “portable stage” for $20,000. Boyd said it would save the city the cost of renting portable stages for various events. A new portable stage, city officials estimated, could cost $80,000 to $90,000. But council members indicated this wasn’t the time to consider such a purchase.
— Council has set June 25 as the date for a public hearing on the city’s budget for the next fiscal year. It will be held at 6 p.m. at Harmon Baldwin Gym, 300 Sanders St. This apparently will be council’s first “in-person” meeting since the coronavirus crisis began, and the city says “social-distancing” measures will be observed at the public hearing.