Interim administrator tells county council what they don’t want to hear

8 mins read

Bill Rauch

Regular readers of this column will recall a study that appeared here in September 2016 that showed that of the three-quarters of a billion dollars that had been raised over the previous 20 years in Beaufort County using the mechanisms of the transportation bond referendum, the school bond referendum and the penny sales tax for roads referendum, 60 percent of the dollars raised have been spent in the Bluffton area.

That the County Council “missed it” on the 1994 Del Webb development agreement that created Sun City Hilton Head is putting it kindly. We have been paying for the Bluffton explosion ever since. 

Now comes another heretofore unappreciated cost of their 1994 short-sightedness, and it should be noted here that none of the present County Council members were on council in 1994.

Interim administrators, especially if they are forthright and seasoned veterans, can in the typically short time they serve perform a valuable service. Beaufort’s County’s present interim administrator, John Weaver, who will turn the top job over to Ashley Jacobs on April 15, is a classic example.

Seasoned, forthright, now with five months in the job and unencumbered by political considerations, Weaver has been telling it straight about what he has concluded is the present snapshot situation at the Beaufort County government.

Here’s what he found.

There are today 85-90 staff vacancies in the county’s nearly 1,300 mostly full-time workforce. The number of vacancies is double what it was five years ago, according to the Employee Services Division Director Suzanne Gregory, who says getting the county’s work done is “becoming unmanageable” because of the vacancies. Gregory and Assistant County Administrator for Public Safety Phil Foot cite corrections officers being required to work back-to-back eight-hour shifts at the jail, and shortages of certified EMS paramedics to care for patients being transported in ambulances as particularly critical areas. But there are others too, they say.

Why is the county workforce so thin?

Because, says Gregory, after the county’s 2015 wage study the County Council determined they would set salaries at the 50th percentile of what comparable workers make. It wasn’t enough, and as a result in recent years the county has been losing workers to other jurisdictions that pay better.

“Let’s say we hire an assistant planner for $43,000 a year,” Weaver says. “Sounds like a good salary right? But after he or she pays 20-30 percent in taxes, and they have a baby with the hospitalization costs, or day care, they’re down to $2,700 a month to live on, and you can’t do that in Beaufort County. The rents are too steep.”

To address the housing situation for government employees, Weaver has encouraged the county’s development agreement negotiators to insist new developments include affordable housing in their plans. 

“We had two developers in here this week and we talked to each of them about including an affordable component in their project, and they both pushed back hard,” Weaver recalled last week. “It comes right out of their profit.” 

In fact, he says Beaufort County has never imposed an inclusionary housing stipulation on any developer. Inclusionary housing stipulations might be things like expedited permits, cash subsidies or zoning bonuses provided to developers who include affordable units in their projects. Inclusionary housing stipulations, reached on a deal-by-deal basis, are typically a far gentler requirement than inclusionary zoning, prevalent now in some communities, that simply mandates county-wide that a proportion of every new development include affordable housing.

With the cost of housing so high now, Gregory says returning to competitiveness would require the County Council to increase the county’s standard compensation formulae to the 75th percentile at a cost of about a $7.3 million increase in the county’s current operating budget of about $125 million.

“And they will have to do it in the upcoming budget season,” Weaver adds, “because next year’s an election year and it will never happen then.”

Did I mention that in the 1994 development agreement that passed unanimously Del Webb magnanimously agreed to lease the Sheriff’s Office two new cruisers? I’ve been reading over the old minutes. Development Agreement Subcommittee Chairman Leonard Tinnan and Council Chairman Tom Taylor, both of whom have since moved out of the county, cheered themselves and the two cruisers as a great victory for the county’s taxpayers then. 

Hold on. There’s more.

If the county were actually to hire the people for whom it currently has budget lines, Weaver says, there’d be no place for many of them to sit.

The county already has plans to demolish the existing Arthur Horne Building on Ribaut Road and replace it with an estimated $7 million, 23,000 sq. ft., three-story office building. The bulldozers will arrive soon and the new building’s about to go out to bid.

But Weaver says the county should also take back the 12,000 sq. ft. Federal Courthouse at 1501 Bay Street in Beaufort from the Santa Elena Foundation to whom they have been renting the building for $1 a month. The Foundation’s lease runs out next year, and the county has discovered that the Foundation has violated the terms of that lease by subletting some of the space.

Sublets or no sublets, the county needs the space, he says.

Old-timers still remember when County Council Chairman Bill Bowen was nearly run out of town in 1991 for building “the Taj Mahal on Ribaut Road,” now known as the Beaufort County Government Center. Twenty-five years later, still grappling with the Bluffton explosion, the county government has now not only outgrown the Taj, it has outgrown five buildings in the Industrial Village too, not to mention various substations and mini-government centers elsewhere in the county.

Now, apparently still unwilling to impose a single inclusionary housing measure upon any of the many developers who followed Sun City here, the County Council faces a tough choice: raise taxes, cut services, or kick the can down the road again until the staff shortages finally cause some now-unimaginable crisis that will finally prompt action.

Bill Rauch was the mayor of Beaufort from 1999-2008. Email Bill at TheRauchReport@gmail.com.

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