COG Deal Under Fire at Joint Meeting

WINNSBORO –After an hour of pleasantries and general government updates in the Midlands Technical College conference room Monday night, tensions rose at the quarterly Fairfield County intergovernmental meeting as the discussion turned to the County’s recent decision to hand over their strategic long-term planning duties to the Central Midlands Council of Governments (COG).

County Councilman David Brown (District 7) proposed the partnership during Council’s May 27 meeting and said then that the COG-led plan would help prepare the County for the massive influx of cash expected to start rolling in in the next five years from the two new nuclear reactors under construction at the V.C. Summer Nuclear Station in Jenkinsville. But that decision was questioned Monday night by members of Fairfield County’s legislative delegation, who said they have been trying to organize a plan for those revenues for months. State Sen. Creighton Coleman (D-17) and State Rep. MaryGail Douglas (D-41) both said they have been fending off attempts at the state level by counties intent on siphoning off V.C. Summer revenues for use in their home counties, and a cohesive plan for the use of that money is essential to those efforts.

“We have tried to initiate conversations for plans for this county with that windfall of money coming,” Douglas said, addressing County Council Chairman David Ferguson (District 5) and County Administrator Milton Pope. “Can you tell me when we can look to have that meeting with County Council, or shed some light on that?”

When Pope reviewed the May 27 vote to partner with the COG, Coleman aired his frustrations.

“What gets me is, I met with you, with MaryGail, sent two letters trying to get together on this plan,” Coleman said. “I had SCE&G and Santee Cooper that would pay for that plan. That would pay for it. And I have yet to get any kind of cooperation from the County saying that we’ll sit down at the table and get together. Nothing. We’ve got a letter from (the Town of Winnsboro), everybody but the County, the Town of Ridgeway, Jenkinsville, the school district, everybody but the County.”

But Ferguson said he, too, was frustrated and that the County had attempted to set up numerous meetings with Coleman with no results.

“It certainly is frustrating,” Ferguson said. “It’s frustrating that for 18 months we tried, this Council tried, to have a sit-down meeting with you as a collaborative group – “

“When?” Coleman interjected, then said, “I’m not going to argue with you.”

“No, because I’ve got the correspondence I sent you,” Ferguson continued, “and you sent it back, so don’t sit there and tell me you’ve tried to meet with us.”

“I’d like to see that letter,” Coleman said.

A few moments later, County Council Vice Chairman Dwayne Perry (District 1) read from a letter he had pulled up on his email account. Perry said the letter was dated May 20, and addressed to Coleman and Douglas. The letter outlined the County’s intentions to work with the COG while also inviting the delegation to “participate in the upcoming process.”

“Creighton, I will tell you, I’m thinking you are involved in the process,” Perry said. “I didn’t realize we were trying to not invite you all to be in this process. I’m reading this letter and we’re saying we want you to be involved, we want you to come to the table. Maybe I’m misunderstanding.”

Brown said his May 27 motion was not meant to be exclusive of anyone wanting to participate in the planning process, but was instead only intended to keep the County from having to create a planning department.

“This has nothing to do, I don’t think, with the idea of Central Midlands regional planning council,” Douglas said, “because we know that’s what they do. They do a good job. What has happened is that as we have anticipated this money coming – I mean a boatload of money is coming our way – and here we are, we don’t really have a plan in place and whenever we tried having some conversation about it, it never went anywhere. And then to read in the paper that Central Midlands was going to be the planner for it . . . it has the appearance that a door is shut to two people in the delegation. That’s the way I feel. Whether you like it or not, that’s the way I feel.”

Pope, meanwhile, made it perfectly clear that at the end of the day the future V.C. Summer revenues would be controlled by the County.

“Let’s be clear about this: the moneys that are going to be coming to the County are going to be moneys that are going to be coming through fee in lieu (of ad valorem taxes),” Pope said. “Let’s be totally clear about this. What that means for everybody else is, if that money comes through fee in lieu, that comes through the auspices of County Council, because that’s the way those things are structured.”

Efforts at the state level by other counties attempting to gain some control over that money, Pope said, were still a threat, and the County needs the support of the legislative delegation to beat back those attempts.

“In the letters we wrote to you that’s exactly what we said,” Coleman replied, “and if we want to be able to defend and protect that money down there at the Statehouse, the first thing you have to do is have a well-thought-out plan that the whole community is involved in making that decision.”

“I don’t think, or I have not heard from one Council member that I work with, that they do not want involvement from (the legislative delegation),” Pope continued. “Also, I was directed by this Council to, certainly, in my email to open the invitation to the delegation to be able to do that.”

Councilwoman Mary Lynn Kinley (District 6) said Council would not move forward on a plan without including input from all parties.

“We have never said we would just vote on what Council wants,” Kinley said. “We would be crazy not to include you all. We started these intergovernmental meetings years ago because we felt like we need input from everybody in the county.”

Dr. Roger Gaddy, Mayor of the Town of Winnsboro, tried to throw a little cold water on the fire, saying the main issue appeared to be communication between the interested parties.

“I think it’s all about communication,” Gaddy said. “Once you open up the opportunity then there’s a responsibility to have a specific time and date set to make sure everybody’s on the same page about sitting down and talking about it. . . . You invited us to the party you just didn’t tell us when it was.”

Gaddy said that he will assume the chairmanship of the COG next month, and in that role he will do everything he can to encourage the COG to include all of Fairfield County’s municipalities in the planning process.

“If we get SCE&G and Santee Cooper to pay for it, that’s good,” Gaddy added, “especially with the feeling they funded this first study (the Genesis study) and very little was done. I think it’s imperative for the County to send some communication to them to let them know what they have implemented in that study that was done to give them some assurance they didn’t throw their money down an empty well and I would encourage you to do that.”

Ferguson said Council would vote on a meeting date to discuss planning for future V.C. Summer revenues at Council’s June 23 meeting.