Fairfield County Council Debates Tax Break

To tax or not to tax? That is the question currently being kicked around by Fairfield County Council in regards to The Shaw Group, Inc., the major contractor working in Jenkinsville to construct two new reactors at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station.

During their July 23 meeting, Council passed their second reading of an ordinance for a “fee-in-lieu of tax” agreement between the County and Shaw, which would essentially freeze the company’s taxes to the County at 6 percent for the next five years. Without the agreement, Shaw’s contribution to County coffers would remain at the standard 10 percent.

Although he voted in favor of the second reading, Councilman Kamau Marcharia (District 4) made it clear that he was beginning to have doubts about what such agreements have actually done for employment in Fairfield County.

“My concern is that we have this $10 billion industry out there and so many people in Fairfield County can’t get jobs,” Marcharia, whose district is home to the nuclear plant, said. “This group (Shaw) is working over there and calling it ‘economic development,’ but I don’t see a whole lot of that. I don’t know what the actual benefit of this is, and I don’t know if I can continue to support it.”

Phil Hinely, the County Administrator, said the agreement between Shaw and the County was actually part of early discussions when construction of the reactors was in its planning stages and that such agreements have, over the last several decades, become commonplace among counties trying to lure economic investment.

“We’ve kind of given them our word that at some point the County would do this, early on,” Hinely said, but added that the County had “sent a strong message to them to be a little more sensitive to the community.”

Council Chairman David Ferguson (District 5) said he felt that Shaw may not be holding up its end of what those early talks were all about.

“I know for a fact they’re not doing all they could do,” Ferguson said. “I know what promises were made to start with. I’m not sure they’re doing everything they can to hire folks they can, and that’s what concerns me.”

Ferguson said a public meeting between the County and Shaw, as well as SCANA (operators of the nuclear plant), might be necessary in order to refresh their collective memories. But, he said, the County couldn’t mandate that Shaw hire local people.

“It’s against the law,” Ferguson said.

Councilman David Brown (District 7) said Council should have some actual numbers to review before a final decision is made on the ordinance.

“I know people who are working out there and a great many of them are from Fairfield County,” Brown said. “Maybe it has made an impact on Fairfield County already. I would like to have a body count.”

Ferguson said one major obstacle prospective employees face is their ability to pass a criminal background check. The County has, he said, been pursuing avenues to help non-violent offenders get their records expunged, but with limited success.

“If you’ve got one blemish on your record, your application goes into File 13 pretty quick,” Ferguson said. “They set their standards pretty high.”

But expunction, Marcharia said, has turned into a cottage industry; and with a price tag of $1,000 to $1,500, it is a luxury that many cannot afford.

“I’ve looked at this (expunction) thing for many people in my district who have come to me and asked for help,” Marcharia said. “A lot of these folks have served their time, followed the law, been paroled by a judicious group of people and they’re back out. They want their record expunged. These are poor working people. These are not rich middle-class people, for the most part. Now you’ve created a whole new industry, in my opinion, to victimize people who don’t have jobs and can’t find a job because they have a record.

“They’ve already paid their debt,” Marcharia continued. “We continue with this type of thing – you won’t allow them to survive and support their family and be responsible and change their character and be responsible human beings – you’d be crazy not to join a gang. A lot of people can’t pay these $1,000-$1,500 (expunction fees) when they’re already poor.”

Another hurdle facing prospective employees is training, and Marcharia said the County is not doing enough to educate and train their citizens. Vice Chairman Dwayne Perry (District 1) said the County had invested in the Midlands Tech QuickJobs Center, but it couldn’t force people to take advantage of it.

“When we built the QuickJobs center it was also a challenge to get people to come out and take those classes to qualify for jobs at Shaw,” Perry said. “I think we knew going in that we could control the controllables, which is to make sure we have a facility where we can train or help train individuals to have an opportunity to work out there. We also knew going in the challenges of being able to be employed at a nuclear site. I think there’s still some time to have those records expunged. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have individuals applying for those jobs who can pass the background (check).”

“Why can’t we get our agencies to get our people to the training center?” Marcharia asked. “They drop out way before they even get there. Why is that? They don’t have a mechanism to follow up.”

Marcharia said last week that, unless the numbers of local hires requested by Brown convince him otherwise, he was not likely to support the ordinance on its final reading, which will be taken up by Council at their next meeting Aug. 27.