Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Word from around the state...fix our roads

As our staff hit the highways again this week, the whole road funding issue really hit home as we bobbed and weaved down I-95 and over Highway 17 to Port Royal avoiding potholes. Yep, our roads are definitely a problem.

The almost-200 local officials who have attended our six Regional Advocacy Meetings to date have brought up transportation issues from a number of perspectives. Today several cities talked about problems with DOT and its process for managing local projects…a problem we’ve heard around the state.

Another transportation issue that comes up frequently is the idea of the state transferring ownership of roads to cities and counties. Many cities and towns are already taking on the responsibility of mowing rights-of-way and repairing state roads. 

So if cities are forced to continue mowing rights-of-way and paving roads to keep their communities safe and liveable, they must also be given the authority to raise revenue to pay for these services. The question really boils down to what level of government assesses the fees or taxes for road maintenance and repair. 

These transportation conversations are taking place all over the state right now. The state chamber of commerce reports similar transportation conversations at its series of grassroots meetings. Association staff has been attending meetings of a transportation study committee appointed by Interim Speaker Jay Lucas looking at transportation needs.

Also, legislative staff from the Association last week participated in the annual meeting of SC Fix Our Roads, a statewide group advocating for increased transportation funding. Our staff reported that the sentiments at that meeting echoed everything that we are hearing at the Regional Advocacy Meetings from local officials and legislators alike… this issue must be addressed in 2015.

So what's the sustainable funding strategy that will fill this gap? Is it an increase in the gas user fee? An increase in the $300 sales tax limit on new cars? Tolls? More local flexibility to raise revenue for maintenance and repairs? Stay tuned.  

Friday, September 26, 2014

On the road...Week two

This week, the Association’s road warriors made stops in Columbia, Summerville and Greenville for the second week of Regional Advocacy Meetings. Again, we had record-breaking participation from city officials and legislators with more than 120 officials from 42 cities and towns and 15 legislators participating.

Transportation, blight, the Freedom of Information Act, Victims’ Assistance Funds, Local Government Fund and funding sources for municipal services continue to be consistent themes from local officials and legislators.

At the meeting in Columbia, Representatives Beth Bernstein, Joe McEachern and Chip Huggins talked to local officials about impending leadership changes in the House, exploring a gas tax increase and ethics reform. Rep. McEachern reiterated what other legislators have told the local officials: “Your voice makes a difference to us at the State House…use it.”

In Summerville, Representatives Jenny Horne and Joe Danning and Senator Sean Bennett joined more than 35 local officials to discuss local government issues. In the last legislative session, Rep. Horne, as chair of the House subcommittee working on the Dilapidated Buildings Act, played an instrumental role in moving the bill forward. She praised Summerville Mayor Bill Collins’ role in maintaining contact with her and illustrating the bill’s local importance.

The Greenville meeting was the largest turnout of local officials and legislators to date! In a jammed room in the cool “Innovate” building on the Reedy River, the discussion focused on many of the same issues of transportation, funding and blight. Representatives David Hiott, Mike Burns, Mike Forrester, Garry Smith and Chandra Dillard were joined by Representatives-elect Gary Clary and Neal Collins and Senators Larry Martin and Ross Turner.

Senator Martin chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee that will hear any FOIA legislation introduced next year, and he discussed some possible solutions to the agenda posting issue. Tiger Wells, the Association’s government affairs liaison, also reminded officials about the importance of completing the quick survey sent to all clerks last week polling cities about their practices and rules regarding changing an agenda after it’s been posted. (Complete the survey here)

Next week we’re on to Port Royal, Sumter and Orangeburg. It’s not too late to let your voice be heard! Register here.

Friday, September 19, 2014

On the road...Week one

Preparations for the 2015 legislative session got into full swing this week with the first two of our ten Regional Advocacy Meetings.

We started in Uptown Greenwood on Tuesday where Mayor Welborn Adams welcomed local officials and city staff from the region to the beautiful Arts Center located in the renovated federal building. Close to 50 local officials from 12 cities and towns joined the Association staff for a lively conversation about issues affecting cities and towns. Blight, infrastructure, budget priorities and changes to the Freedom of Information Act topped the list of issues local officials discussed.

Senators Floyd Nicholson (left) and Billy O’Dell were joined by Representative Craig Gagnon who gave their insight into the upcoming session. The senators both said they support a gas tax increase but acknowledged passage would likely be an uphill battle. Rep. Gagnon noted he had heard from many of his House colleagues that the time has come to address the funding shortfall in the Local Government Fund. 

On Wednesday in Florence, we had another great turnout of more than 50 officials from 15 Pee Dee cities and towns. Florence Mayor Stephen Wukela greeted the local officials and staff who met in the recently opened Hotel Florence (right), a locally-owned downtown boutique hotel located in a rehabbed building that was originally a hotel and a hardware store.

Again, clearing blight, funding infrastructure, updating FOIA to require an agenda and identifying ways to fund services topped the list of issues discussed. 

Rep. Wayne George (left) spoke to the group about the importance of local officials’ voices in the debate over the Local Government Fund. As a former mayor, George said he completely understands the importance of LGF dollars to funding public safety and infrastructure, in particular. “Be aggressive in your efforts to support a new Local Government Fund formula,” he said.

Next week, we move on to Columbia, Summerville and Greenville. It’s not too late for elected officials and city staff to register and voice your opinion on issues affecting cities and towns.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

To Amend or Not to Amend

By Tigerron Wells, Municipal Association's Government Affairs Liaison

On September 16, I had the opportunity to testify before a Senate study committee looking at issues related to the Freedom of Information Act. The committee is comprised of Senators Larry Martin of Pickens (Chairman), Chip Campsen of Charleston, Gerald Malloy of Darlington and Shane Massey of Aiken. 

The committe met to begin discussing, among other issues, proposed legislation that will address agendas and amending agendas for public bodies’ regularly scheduled meetings.

The agenda issue resulted from the June 2014 SC Supreme Court decision, Lambries v. Saluda County. This ruling  concluded that the law says an agenda is not required for a regularly scheduled meeting of a public body. Neither does the law prohibit regular meeting agendas from being amended at the time of the meeting. 

Read more about the original Lambries v. Saluda County Court of Appeals decision in Uptown and the Association's position on the June 2014 Supreme Court decision in the City Connect blog post.

During the study committee meeting, I reiterated to committee members the Municipal Association’s position that cities and towns should continue following the customary practice of creating and posting agendas for regularly scheduled meetings at least 24 hours before such meetings. An agenda is critical to conducting a meeting effectively and efficiently.

I also noted to the committee members that a public body should not be restricted from taking up issues that are not included on an agenda at the time of the meeting. Agendas, after all, are important tools of order, but should not limit a public body’s ability to handle important public business that may come up unexpectedly after an agenda has been posted. Of course, changes should only be made under narrow and unavoidable circumstances.

The senators appeared to be in agreement that the FOIA should be amended to specifically require an agenda for regularly scheduled meetings. 

It seems that the discussion on this issue in January will revolve around how, or if, items could be added to the agenda at the meeting. 
The committee will continue to meet between now and January. Stay tuned for more details.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Listening to issues important to our cities and towns

By Scott Slatton, Municipal Association's Legislative and Public Policy Advocate

A rolling stone gathers no moss. And so far this year, neither has my truck! 

From Pickens to Bennettsville to Estill and everywhere in between, I’ve been privileged to meet with city officials all over the state to hear how the Municipal Association can help them solve problems either through training, advocacy or just general conversation.

As you prepare to attend the Regional Advocacy Meetings that start next week, let me share with you the most common issues I’ve heard about during my travels this year.

Infrastructure funding tops the list. Roads, bridges, and water and sewer systems all need reliable funding to keep our cities competitive. While suggestions vary on how to fund infrastructure, there is no disagreement on the needs of cities and towns across the state.

Clearing blight is a frequently mentioned issue. Code enforcement and dilapidated buildings are ongoing problems towns struggle with each day. More money would be helpful, but I’ve observed there are other, inexpensive solutions we need to help cities better understand.

Use of existing tools, commitment to the task, proper ordinances and then rigorous enforcement are all things the Municipal Association can help cities with. Other tools, like the Dilapidated Buildings Act and consistent collection of code enforcement liens, are would-be solutions.

Rounding out the list of frequently-mentioned topics is a perennial Municipal Association legislative priority: annexation. Specifically, the problems caused by enclaves. Changing our state’s laws to allow enclave annexation is a goal we can reach...but only with a tremendous, united effort from city officials and their allies across South Carolina.

What have I missed? Surely, there’s more! We want you to hear from you, so come tell us at an upcoming Regional Advocacy Meeting near you! The meetings start on September 16 and run through October 8. Sign up for the one closest to you.