2016 had many challenges, but opportunities are ahead

7 mins read

By Paul Sommerville

Beaufort County survived the devastation of Hurricane Matthew. We were prepared but not perfect. We will be even better prepared should we ever (God forbid) face another hurricane or other natural disaster.

Long before Matthew’s arrival, Beaufort County had taken many steps in preparation. We knew that it would be difficult or even impossible to borrow money if our tax base were destroyed by a hurricane, so we had accumulated financial reserves in excess of $26 million dollars and an additional line of credit of $10 million dollars.

As it turns out, this was very fortuitous because it looks like Beaufort County will be shelling out somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million-plus in recovery and cleanup expenses before any FEMA reimbursement starts trickling in.

Beaufort County also had a longstanding contract with a debris removal contractor and a FEMA consultant (yes, you need a FEMA consultant to navigate all of the mind-numbing FEMA rules). In my humble opinion (IMHO), that is good planning.

The governor was absolutely correct to order an early evacuation. Those of us who have experienced “last minute” evacuations, know what a quagmire our roads can quickly become when everyone is attempting to leave at the same time.

The return was more challenging because when the governor lifted the evacuation order and announced that we could all return to our homes, she failed to mention that the decision regarding when residents of various areas of our county could return to their respective homes was being transferred to the Beaufort County sheriff for a final decision.

This led to long lines of extremely unhappy residents who were told by law enforcement officers that the governor’s statement notwithstanding, the sheriff had not yet authorized return to several parts of the county due to unsafe conditions such as impassable streets, downed power lines and fallen or leaning trees.

As we anticipated, obtaining FEMA reimbursement is more art than science. Over half of the roads in Beaufort County are private roads and FEMA regulations specifically exclude debris removal on private roads from any reimbursement.

Obviously, we could not refuse to assist some of our citizens simply because they live on private roads, so the Beaufort County Council had to take some decisive and risky steps in order to assist our citizens who live on private roads with debris removal.

Because of these efforts by County Council, Beaufort County will be at least partially reimbursed for the cost of debris removal on both public and private roads. The Island News (Nov. 10-16 edition) has written an in-depth article on that challenging process.

Beaufort County is also working with our legislative delegation to seek reimbursement from the state for the portion of cleanup costs that will not be reimbursed by FEMA.

Bill Herbkershman, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee is working very closely with us in this regard.

To put some perspective on the massive nature of the cleanup operation, over 1 million cubic yards of debris will be picked up on public and private roadways in Beaufort County, excluding Hilton Head. On Hilton Head, over 3 million cubic yards of debris will be picked up. Over 55,000 hanging limbs have been removed and over 2,600 leaning trees taken down, excluding Hilton Head.

Obviously, even a small portion of this debris would overwhelm any landfill within driving range, so all of this debris is being staged at six different locations throughout the county. Burning is taking place at three of the locations and grinding at the other three.

Marine debris removal is a challenge because the county lacks jurisdiction below mean low water so the county is involved in ongoing discussions with the various state and federal agencies that do have at least some jurisdiction. These agencies include the SC Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Coast Guard, SCDHEC/OCRM and the Army Corps of Engineers.

As we return to normal, we will have to determine the rate at which we replace the county’s reserve funds that have been and will be expended but that will not be reimbursed.

Reserve funds serve two primary purposes. The first is to deal with unbudgeted emergencies (such as hurricanes and other natural disasters) and the second is to satisfy our bondholders and their attorneys, which keeps our credit rating high and our bond interest rates low and saves taxpayer money. Depending on the rate at which we ultimately determine to replace our reserves and how successful we are in getting maximum FEMA and state reimbursement, county operating millage may be impacted.

It was a challenging year and there are challenges ahead for 2017.

We are still a fast growing county, which means that we will constantly need repairs and upgrades to our infrastructure and our schools. All of this costs money.

This is why the county, in collaboration with the municipalities, is working hard to attract economic development to Beaufort County to provide jobs for our children and to relieve some of the tax burden from our primary and secondary homeowners.

I have commented on this topic in some depth at the Beaufort County State of the Region meeting in Hilton Head. My remarks can be viewed at www.youtube.com/watch?v=1D2Bwn2ywtw.

Paul Sommerville is the chairman of the Beaufort County Council and and District 2 council representative.

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