Thursday, December 5, 2019

Countdown to Legislative Advocacy in 2020

In a few short weeks, lawmakers will return to Columbia to take up the business of South Carolina state government. The second half of the 2019 – 2020 legislative session brings with it the need for local leaders to engage with their legislators on issues crucial to supporting local authority to make local decisions. 

City and town officials walk to the State House during Hometown Legislative Action Day. 

There are several things that local elected officials and staff should do to help during the legislative session. 

Keep up with the action 

From the Dome to Your Home gives leaders a great way to learn more and stay engaged. This weekly recap email goes out on Fridays during the session, covering all the legislative activity that has the potential to impact South Carolina’s cities and towns. The content in From the Dome to Your Home also appears in the City Quick Connect podcast during the legislative session, along with added discussion from the legislative team. 

It’s also possible to follow specific legislation that is mentioned in the weekly legislative reports through the Legislative Tracking System. For example, H4431 is a much-talked-about business license bill that would cause a number of complications in how business license taxes are calculated and structured. 

Another example is S217, a bill which would give municipalities the ability to use revenue from hospitality and accommodations taxes to control and repair flooding in tourist-related areas. The bill represents the last of the Municipal Association’s advocacy initiatives that have not yet been completed in the current session. S217 has already been passed by the Senate and now waits for further action in the House Ways and Means Committee. 

Connect with legislators 

It’s not enough to know about the issues — city and town leaders need to remain in touch with their legislators so they can communicate about how particular bills would impact their communities. Building relationships and communicating effectively with legislators are skills that need to be honed. Those wanting to learn more about the process can check out the Municipal Association’s advocacy handbook, Raising Hometown Voices to a New Level of Influence

It’s also critical to know which legislators to contact, given that some municipalities fall within multiple House and Senate districts. The online South Carolina Municipal Officials and Legislative Directory now allows for searching municipalities by their representatives and senators. 

The Municipal Association’s Hometown Legislative Action Day, which will take place in Columbia on Tuesday, February 4, gives city and town officials a chance to meet with representatives and senators at the State House, and to learn more about legislative issues. Registration information is available on the Association’s website. Don’t wait until January 14 to call your legislators. If you haven’t already talked to them about important issues for 2020, do it now. 

Hometown Legislative Action Day attendees meet with their legislative delegations in the lobby of the State House.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Fulfilling the Cybersecurity Responsibility

Ransomware attacks are a critical risk for cities and towns, having grown more common and more expensive to address.  
The process of hacking a computer system and demanding a ransom is a straightforward one. First, the hacker tricks someone in the organization into exposing the network, possibly by emailing the person a link that turns out to be a virus, or by posing in a phone call or an email as a coworker or some other trusted person in order to ask for login credentials like usernames and passwords. Once in the system, the hacker locks computer files or possibly even the entire system, then demands the payment of a ransom through untraceable Bitcoin cryptocurrency. Municipalities, as a result, can stand to lose business operations and potentially even large amounts of money, if they choose to pay the ransom. 

There are steps that city and town governments can take to guard against ransomware attacks. For example, training staff to pay careful attention to messages that engender a sense of panic – that something has to be done immediately to stop a problem – can help them spot phishing attempts. The emails could ask for authentication information, or use misspelled words or strange phrasing. At the Municipal Association of SC, the staff is encouraged to forward suspected phishing emails to the IT department. Messages can then be used as an educational tool to illustrate a real-world example of what a dangerous email look like. 

Other steps for municipalities can include increasing a focus on security software, strengthening passwords and teaching staff to maintain a wariness of unfamiliar wireless networks. Putting adequate resources into backup systems can help cities have options as they work to restore data and maintain continuity of services. 

In October, the National League of Cities released a report on municipal cybersecurity. It noted that cybersecurity readiness needs the involvement of the entire organization, including leadership; that the work has to remain continuous; and that adequate budgets are necessary to provide meaningful security. Because cyberattacks can cost taxpayer money and service reliability, local officials owe their residents a serious approach to cybersecurity, both in infrastructure and in ongoing training. 

Additional resources 

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Simplifying Business Licensing

Business licenses are a critical source of revenue to cities and towns in South Carolina. The considerable majority of the state’s municipalities — 234 of the total 271 — require licenses for businesses to operate within their boundaries. In most municipalities, somewhere from a quarter to half of general fund revenue comes from business licenses, helping to pay for the many local government services that facilitate living and working in a city— things like public safety, sanitation, planning or recreation. 

At the same time, business licenses can be frustrating when a business operates in multiple cities with different licensure processes. There could be multiple due dates and measurement periods, or different ways of calculating revenue. Those variances can lead to interest in making significant legislative changes to business licensing that can dramatically damage cities’ and towns’ ability to deliver the services that residents expect. Most recently, H4431 was introduced late in the 2019 legislative session, and the bill will still be active in the 2020 session. 

Standardization across jurisdictions can help replace frustration with a fair process that makes doing business within multiple cities easier. The Municipal Association has been working on business license standardization for years. In 2014, the Association created the Standardized Business License Application, designed to more easily meet the needs of businesses operating in multiple cities and towns. Many municipal and county governments have adopted the standard application, as seen in this list

Beyond the application, there’s more that municipalities are doing to make the process easier for businesses. Cities and towns are adopting the most current model business license ordinance, calculating business licenses taxes based on either the previous calendar year or the business’ fiscal year, and adopting the standard period for business license effectiveness and the standard due date of April 30. 

There’s plenty of additional information available on business licensing and standardization: 

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Incremental Downtown District Changes Highlighted at Main Street SC Training

by Jenny Boulware, Main Street SC Manager 

Over the years, multiple city and community leaders in Orangeburg have evoked the idea of “cathedral thinking.” Given the length of time needed to build a grand and ornate cathedral, the individual builders and artisans involved were people who went to work knowing they were unlikely to ever live to see the finished product — but every step involved was one step closer to the goal. 

This idea came up again during Main Street South Carolina’s recent fourth quarter training session in downtown Orangeburg, where Main Street staff from around the state received a welcome from City Administrator John Yow, and learned about local projects from Downtown Orangeburg Revitalization Association Executive Director Candice Roberson — most notably the construction of the new farmers market pavilion. Candice elaborated on several of the projects in a podcast recorded after the end of the session
The group toured the under-construction farmers market pavilion on Russell Street in downtown Orangeburg. 

The group also heard from Hillary Howard, executive director of Conway Alive, who discussed principles she has learned about relationship-building with downtown merchants and boards, as well as program management. She described the institutional knowledge that a downtown development director develops over time as priceless. While Conway Alive has increased its number of events over the years, the events are all now dollar-positive promotions with the primary aim of driving people into the individual businesses. 
The Orangeburg meeting was the last of the quarterly trainings for the year, following earlier meetings in Columbia, Williamston as well as Aiken and North Augusta. 

The training also featured a grant panel including the Downtown Camden program, Main Street Bennettsville and Main Street Kingstree. The participants discussed their goals and experiences with specific grant projects, and several themes emerged. First, aggressively pursuing grants can be a great way for any downtown program to develop diversity in funding. Additionally, there’s value in establishing goals ahead of time, rather than simply going after every grant opportunity that presents itself. Instead, programs should ideally decide on either specific projects or on focus areas for grant funding, like walkability or recreation. 

South Carolina’s history of coordinated and sustained downtown revitalization programs has many people noticing significant, positive changes in one downtown district or another. Still, changes are incremental, and it’s easy to become discouraged. This last Main Street SC training highlighted ways that communities can keep pushing for more vibrant downtowns and the results that can follow.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Communications Workshop to Discuss Economic Development Messaging, Branding

Economic development is a critical conversation in any municipality. What the public perceives and discusses about the economic prospects of a community drives decisions about where they are going to live, work or visit. 

The upcoming Communications Workshop at the offices of the Municipal Association of SC on October 29 is going to dig into this topic with a panel discussion of several municipal staff members from around the state talking about how they spread the word about their own economic development success stories. This is an area that came up in a social media panel discussion at the Municipal Association’s Annual Meeting in July, as described in this Uptown story. Numerous cities and towns in South Carolina have been able to boost stories about their ongoing economic development pushes through social media, sometimes even drawing attention to development trends before local media outlets really latch onto the story. 

Another session at the Communications Workshop will cover the visual elements of communication — the techniques that local government communicators can use when creating photo or video content to make their messages more understandable and interesting to their audience. Every year, the Municipal Association employs visual language in the video series that accompanies all of the Achievement Award winners around the state

One of the 2019 award winners, the City of Goose Creek, received its award for a project to create a new official branding for the city as well as an economic development communications campaign. Another session at the Communications Workshop will touch on this issue: “Branding and Marketing Your Town as a Destination for Visitors,” led by Kelly Barbrey of Experience Columbia SC. 

The workshop is designed both for municipal public information officers as well as anyone else with a role in local government communications. Attendee space is limited, and the deadline to register is Friday, October 18 at 5 p.m. See registration information for the workshop.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Building Officials Association of SC tackles education, legislation

People expect safety from the buildings they occupy — the places where they live, work and play. Rarely does anyone enter a building and wonder whether its design, its construction materials, or even its wiring and fire suppression systems, pose a threat. 

The hundreds of licensed building officials, inspectors and plans examiners in South Carolina have the job of making sure that building safety isn’t compromised, and the Building Officials Association of South Carolina supports them in this vitally important work. 

The Building Officials Association of South Carolina, which affiliated with the Municipal Association of South Carolina in 2017, focuses on training for its members. The affiliate's 2019 Annual Meeting, for example, covered such topics the International Building Code requirements for building size, sprinklers and mixed-use occupancies, as well as what the IBC has to say about building rental spaces and making them fire resistant. 

The affiliation between BOASC and the Municipal Association has led to a greater focus by each group on State House legislation that impacts building regulations in South Carolina. The BOASC membership and the Municipal Association’s legislative team stay involved with lawmakers and stakeholders on the issues, and testify at hearings on pending legislation. Here are some examples of building regulation bills that are active in the current 2019 – 2020 session and that have received attention and input from BOASC and the Municipal Association: 

  • H4327 – This bill came about because of concerns that IBC standards for sprinkler systems are too burdensome in cases where a commercial kitchen is used in the agritourism industry. In simpler terms, this would apply to a barn that’s rented out for weddings, and food is prepared at the barn. This scenario can easily lead to the property owner being required to install a sprinkler system costing $30,000 or more. BOASC engaged with the SC Building Codes Council and General Assembly to modify the number of attendees that would trigger the sprinkler requirement. As currently amended, the bill’s threshold is 300 people. For lower numbers of people, other safety measures, like smoke detectors and fire extinguishers would still be required. 
  • S796 – This bill emerged from the concern that the requirement in state law for the SC Building Codes Council to update residential building codes every three years is too burdensome for home builders. The current bill changes the timeline for updates to the residential codes after the most recent publication of code updates.
  • S757 – This bill would require all municipalities and county governments looking to adopt ordinances that would impact the cost of building housing to first prepare an analysis of the impact of the potential costs. Preparing such reports could itself be costly for local governments whenever their councils take action on home construction. 

Those interested in getting involved with the Building Officials Association of SC can learn more here.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Loss Control Helps Keep City Staff and Property Safe

In the world of insurance and risk management, loss control is exactly what it sounds like — efforts made to make losses of property or life, as well as injuries, as small as possible. Loss control helps keep people safe, and helps to stop potential increases in the cost of insurance.

The Municipal Association’s Risk Management Services, which is the home of two self-funded insurance programs — the SC Municipal Insurance Trust and the SC Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund — has a loss control division focusing entirely on ways to keep the people and the properties that serve municipalities safe. 

“A good safety and risk management process helps identify, analyze and monitor potential risks and take actions to mitigate the impact of potential losses,” said Heather Ricard, director of Risk Management Services. “The loss control staff exist to help municipalities develop and implement safety programs that will protect property and save lives.” 

Loss control training can take many different forms. SCMIT and SCMIRF members have access to tools, like model fire and law enforcement policies and procedures, on-site technical assistance visits as well as online and print education resources. A safety calendars — one for general risk management and another for high-risk critical tasks for law enforcement — is released each year to members as an additional training tool. These calendars draw attention to risk management actions cities and towns can take every month. Members also have access to LocalGovU, a free online training platform that has 90 classes which focus on municipal risk.

The response to resistance simulator is perhaps the most high profile of the available training opportunities. It places law enforcement officers in situations where they must make split-second decisions about the level of force they should use. This Uptown article explains more about the training. 

Other services are available to all cities and towns. Loss control staff contribute to the Risk Management Services RiskLetter newsletter, which can give city and town officials’ ideas of how to better minimize operational risks. The article topics in the recent Summer 2019 issue, for example, include these: 

Venyke Harley serves as loss control manager for Risk Management Services. Recently, John Ciesielski joined as loss control consultant, having previously worked for the South Carolina branch of OSHA.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Managing Public Participation at Council Meetings

Residents often care deeply about the city or town they live in. It’s what can motivate them to attend city council meetings, take part in public comment periods at those meetings or one day run for office themselves.

Even though public comment periods can be a valuable channel of engagement, feelings among participating residents can run high and public participation can become disruptive during the business meetings of a council, with issues like speakers exceeding their time limit or inappropriate conduct.
Many city councils use timers for public comment periods during meetings, like this one used by the City of North Augusta. 

State law requires public hearings for some actions taken by council at meetings, like the adoption of a budget or the adoption of a fee schedule. In other cases outside of this requirement, a city or town council will use ordinances or locally adopted rules of procedure to provide for and manage public comment periods. 

This Uptown article takes a look at the approach to public comments taken by several municipalities — the City of Westminster, City of Columbia, Town of Seabrook Island and Town of Summerville. 

The Municipal Association has another resource touching on this topic: the How to Conduct Effective Meetings handbook. It includes a sample set of rules of order that a council can adopt which include rules for speaking during a public comment period, with the following requirements: 
  • The speaker can comment on municipal issues other than personnel matters.
  • The speaker must sign an agenda list maintained by the clerk before the meeting with the subject and purpose for speaking. 
  • The speaker is limited to two minutes.  

As the rest of the handbook illustrates, thoughtful management of public comment periods are only one aspect of running meetings effectively. When handled well, these sessions can have a real impact on making sure that the voices of city residents are heard before council in a meaningful and useful way.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

2019 Regional Advocacy Meetings Are Almost Here

On a scale of 1 to 10, how important is it for city and town officials to attend one of this fall’s Regional Advocacy Meetings to get involved in the Municipal Association’s advocacy efforts at the State House? 

Director of Governmental Affairs Tiger Wells answered this question in a recent podcast: “somewhere between 12 and 15.” 

2018 Regional Advocacy Meeting, Walterboro. Note that locations differ for this year's meetings. 

These meetings give municipal officials a chance to offer their input on strategy, to share solutions and to learn how legislative action in the 2019 session specifically affects their city. Local officials will also get a sense of what is coming for the 2020 session and participate in a strategy session on pending bills dealing with flexibility with hospitality and accommodations tax revenue, business licensing, small wireless facilities and plastic bag bans. 

2018 Regional Advocacy Meeting, Clemson. 

There are 10 meetings scheduled around the state in August and September. The meetings run from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., and have lunch served as well. There’s no charge for the meetings, but registration is required for lunch planning and handouts. Here are the registration links for each date: 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Municipal Social Media Still Growing More Important

Cities and towns are accelerating their adoption of social media as a communications tool, and the panel at a social media session during the Municipal Association’s Annual Meeting showed how this can involve many people involving the city’s leadership and staff. 

The panel featured Newberry Mayor Foster Senn, whose Twitter account works alongside all the City of Newberry channels like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Christopher George, meanwhile, serves as communications manager for the City of Spartanburg (Twitter, Facebook and Instagram); and Shawn Bell serves as city administrator, complete with social media duties, for the City of Fountain Inn (Facebook). 

Over time in Spartanburg, George said, “social media has become, without a doubt, our number-one way of reaching people.” 

He said the original build-up of the audience occurred around 2012. 

"We were very keen on pushing downtown development at a time when it [social media] was really just getting started for us," he said. "The local media wasn’t paying quite as much attention to it. They are now."

George added that business development may have gotten the audience subscribed, but they are now engaged in communication on other topics. Spartanburg routinely gets thousands of views for city council meetings on Facebook Live.

In Newberry, Senn’s use of Twitter is not unusual for an elected official. Pushing out information, he said, promotes transparency and helps residents to be informed. 

"They want to know about their town, they want to know that they’re a part of it. If they’re informed, they feel more a part of it," he said. 

Social media channels now do much of the heavy lifting for special event promotion, and Bell drew attention to Fountain Inn’s Facebook promotions of its Saturday farmers market, Fourth of July celebration Christmas events and Coffee with Council gatherings. He also uses it to promote Ask the Administrator sessions, a quarterly appointment for Bell to answer questions on Facebook for a couple of hours on a Thursday evening. 

Social media is a two-way communications tool. The panel discussed the careful and thoughtful responses to negative posts, and addressing those posts that are blatantly abusive of profane after documenting them, as social media is subject to the SC Freedom of Information Act