Grievances, Strategies Come Out at Meeting

WINNSBORO – Approximately 86 people gathered in the Fairfield Central High School auditorium Monday night for a town hall meeting, hosted by State Sen. Creighton Coleman (D-17) and State Rep. MaryGail Douglas (D-41). The meeting served as a forum for residents who have been taking their concerns to Fairfield County Council in recent months and covered the hot-button issues of Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) funds, recreation funding, monthly allowances for County Council members and a push for reimbursement of payments made to Council members in lieu of supplemental health insurance. The meeting also touched briefly on efforts to open details of County spending practices to the public via a page on the County’s Web site.

LOST

Updating the group on where the County stood on accounting for seven years’ of LOST funds, Douglas said Winnsboro attorney Jonathan Goode and Fairfield County resident Maggie Holmes – who began questioning the County’s handling of the funds last March – told her they were expecting to have detailed information from the County next week.

“Pending the correspondence they get back, they are positioning themselves for further legal action,” Douglas said.

Milton Pope, the County’s interim Administrator, was in attendance Monday night and said Council has scheduled a meeting on the LOST funds for Sept. 30 at 6:30 p.m. The meeting is tentatively slated to be held in the high school auditorium. The meeting will include a dialogue, Pope said, between Council and the public.

Questions raised by Goode and Holmes over the LOST funds triggered a massive internal examination over whether or not appropriate credit has been applied to property tax bills since 2007. A local citizens action group, Saving Fairfield, has since hired The Hobbs Group, a Columbia CPA firm, to conduct their own investigation. Evidence has mounted indicating a mishandling of those funds, and Monday night some in the audience questioned why none of the County’s internal financial mechanisms caught the error. Douglas placed the blame squarely on former County Administrator Phil Hinely.

“Mr. Hinely’s comments to folks whenever they questioned anything was ‘You’re either on the team or you aren’t’,” Douglas said. “So jobs were on the line. That was said to me more than one time. That’s why we are where we are.”

Douglas added that Council should also be held responsible for how the LOST money was handled.

“We do not need to let our Council members go without some of the blame,” she said. “They are the stewards of our money, ultimately.”

“We all know what happened,” Coleman agreed. “There were a certain three or four of them that were controlling everything and the other ones didn’t know exactly what was going on.”

Recreation

Earlier this year, County Council passed a $24 million bond issue, with $3.5 million of that money devoted to recreation. From nearly the moment the bond issue passed, Council has been mired in gridlock over how to spend those recreation funds, which Council divvied up into $500,000 allotments for each of the seven districts.

“I just have a lot of heartburn over that $3.5 million, and I don’t mind standing up here and telling you that I can just envision all kinds of things, if we’re going to spend recreation money in this county, how it could best be used,” Douglas said. “I cannot believe that we’re going to sit by and for $3.5 million watch mini-parks go up, mini-parks that have no lasting value, that sit idle oftentimes.”

Douglas has previously suggested the County reach out to the YMCA for a facility, but has gotten no positive feedback from County Council. Coleman, meanwhile, pointed out that Council has not even adopted a recreation plan, nor has there been any coordination between Council members to determine how to best serve the most people.

“To me, that’s just preposterous,” Coleman said.

One suggestion to come from the public Monday night was that, while the bond money that has been earmarked for recreation must be spent on recreation, how it is to be spent — $500,000 per district – might be able to be revised by a vote of Council.

Reimbursement

Douglas said the County has until Sept. 25 to answer a letter sent by Coleman requesting that Council members David Ferguson (District 5), Mary Lynn Kinley (District 6) and Mikel Trapp (District 3) repay the approximately $22,800 each they had received since 2009 in lieu of supplemental health insurance. Last week, both Trapp and Kinley said discussions were under way with attorneys on whether or not those funds would be repaid. Ferguson denied any such discussions. Trapp also received an additional $26,806 for tuition assistance. While he said last week that he has begun paying that money back, his reimbursement rate of $100 a month drew some harsh comments at Monday’s meeting.

“If my math is right, it will take him 27 years to pay that money back,” Clyde Wade said. “A hundred dollars a month is a slap in the face to the taxpayers of this county.”

Transparency

Betty Scott Frazier asked Council at their Sept. 9 meeting if they would consider posting their expenditures to the County Web site. Monday night, Frazier said the postings would be not only on the County’s site, but on the State Comptroller’s Web site as well. Frazier said she had received a positive response from Deputy County Administrator Davis Anderson, and plans are to have the information posted within the next 30 to 60 days.

Monthly Allowances

In addition to their base salary of $15,000 a year (plus an additional $4,800 a year for the Chairmanship and $3,000 a year for the Vice Chairmanship), County Council members receive $795 a month for mileage, office supplies and Blackberry expenses, without turning in receipts. Douglas said Monday night she hoped Council would do away with that practice. Douglas also questioned if Council members had paid taxes on those allowances. Coleman said the accountant with the Hobbs Group was checking with the Department of Revenue to see if taxes had been paid on that income.

Now What?

Several members of the public Monday night took a reflective view of the group in attendance, noting that the audience represented only a small percentage of Fairfield County voters. How to energize and educate the remaining 98 percent, and how to truly effect change in Fairfield County, was a lingering question.

Tell eight people, Douglas said, and make sure they tell eight more. And Coleman encouraged the group to remain active.

“Exactly what County Council wants to happen is that the taxpayers peter out and not continue to stay on them,” Coleman said. “They’re waiting on that. If that happens, you only have one person to blame. You can look in the mirror and that’s who’s to blame. Me included. I think it’s absolutely incumbent that we all stay involved, go to these meetings and make our positions known. This is our one chance, our chance to do something about it, and that’s going to be at the ballot box next November.”