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It may be warm outside, but the temperature has grown cold when it comes to local officials deciding what to do with funding for the Lancaster County Economic Development Corp.
Following a surprise decision earlier this month by members of the I-77 Alliance to reject membership to Lancaster County, several Lancaster County Council members in turn voted Monday night to freeze a majority of the LCEDC’s funding for fiscal year 2014-15 until they can get to the bottom of the decision.
Hours after the meeting, Lancaster County Administrator Steve Willis discussed the mechanics behind council’s 4-3 vote to freeze all but one-twelfth of the LCEDC’s funding in the budget.
“The motions we heard last night were first to freeze everything for economic development, then there was a motion to just freeze 11 months,” Willis said. “I didn’t know it was coming. It sounds like they want a meeting to figure out what the heck was going on.”
Willis said the motion comes as the county was about to change how it funds LCEDC during the upcoming fiscal year.
He said the organization is moving toward becoming a 501(c)4 group, and as such the county will begin funding the LCEDC in quarterly lump sums.
The county’s budget has allocated about $400,000 to the LCEDC for the entire fiscal year, with quarterly payouts to be made of about $100,000.
“In this next fiscal year, they’ll get a lump sum from the county and the economic development board figures out how it will be spent. So once a quarter we’ll cut them a big check,” he said.
“So we were planning on July 1 to cut a check for a quarter of the funding, but now we’ll have to cut a check for one-third of one-quarter. That’s about $33,000.”
The funding freeze presents several unique problems, Willis said.
If the original motion, made by Councilman Larry Honeycutt, had been approved to freeze all of the LCEDC’s funding indefinitely, Willis said it would have meant no money to cover staff salaries, to pay for utilities at LCEDC offices or to bring delegations from prospective companies into the county.
”The LCEDC gets some money from private funds, but the county’s funding is the lion’s share. By totally freezing the funding, it would have affected them greatly,” Willis said.
On Thursday morning, Honeycutt talked about the reasons behind his original motion and subsequent vote to approve fellow Councilman Steve Harper’s proposal to freeze all but one month’s worth of funds for LCEDC.
“That motion was made so we can get to the bottom of all these accusations being thrown out. We desperately need to be in the Alliance. We don’t need to be an island by ourselves. We need to know why that 16-3 vote was taken,” Honeycutt said.
The county learned earlier this month it had not been accepted into the I-77 Alliance, a multi-county economic development cooperative which includes representatives from York, Chester, Fairfield and Richland counties. During a June 12 meeting in Richburg, Alliance members voted 16-3 not to allow Lancaster County into the cooperative, while concurrently voting to allow Richland County instead.
State legislators, including State Reps. Deborah Long, R-Dist. 45, Mandy Powers-Norrell, D-Dist. 44, and State Sen. Greg Gregory, R-Dist. 16, have been concerned about the Alliance’s vote since a state budget proviso had been created earlier this month stating that the Alliance would receive a $100,000 increase in funding, from $575,000 to $675,000, if Lancaster County was accepted as an Alliance member.
Honeycutt said he hopes to soon find out what changed Alliance member’s minds.
“Why were we voted out? That’s the main question. Was it over something that was done that shouldn’t have been done? I don’t know. Is it a no-confidence vote in our director? I don’t know,” he said.
“I am for my county,” Honeycutt said. “Whatever it takes to make my county better, I’ll do. If it’s not pleasing to some people, I’m not apologizing. I don’t intend on bowing down to anyone. Not being in the Alliance is hurting us and we need to be there.
“The 16-3 vote against Lancaster County, that should bother every person in Lancaster County. It bothers me. It bothers me because we’re a progressive county, with good people, good jobs and we are not thought highly of by surrounding counties. That bothers me and we need to know why,” he said.
LCEDC President Keith Tunnell said Tuesday morning he had no comment about the issue.
“We have a project in town this week and our team is extremely busy in getting jobs and investment into Lancaster County. We are just working this and hoping the other issue will get resolved by the county’s leadership,” Tunnell said.
In the meantime, council has called a special meeting for noon today, June 27 in council chambers at the County Administration building. According to the amended agenda, council has scheduled an economic development briefing concerning the I-77 Alliance to be moderated by Council chairman Larry McCullough and LCEDC board chairman Steve Gedney. An executive session is also planned to discuss contractual and personnel matters.
Though county officials have been reluctant to talk openly about the reasons behind Lancaster County’s failed bid to become a member of the Alliance, a June 9 letter sent from McCullough to I-77 Alliance chairman Dr. Britt Blackwell may shed some light on their concerns.
The letter, written on Lancaster County letterhead, was also sent to all I-77 Alliance board members, all members of Lancaster County Council, all members of the county’s legislative delegation, Willis, all LCEDC board members, S.C. Reps. Gary Simrill and Ralph Norman, S.C. Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt and Sen. Hugh Leatherman.
In the letter, which was provided to The Lancaster News by Sen. Gregory, McCullough addresses three concerns of Alliance members that have come to his attention.
The first includes a concern about confidentiality in regards to a conversation Tunnell had about a potential Chester County economic development project.
“I have learned, while LCEDC President, Mr. Keith Tunnell, discussed the potential project for Chester County in a monthly confidential workforce meeting, however, he did not name the company coming to Chester nor has he provided details about that project to anyone other than to mention the workforce issues,” McCullough said in the letter. “He was only speaking in general terms.”
Also in the letter, McCullough addressed a concern Alliance members had that a recording may have been made during an executive session at its May meeting.
“It has also come to my attention that at last month’s Alliance meeting, Ms. Elaine McKinney of the LCEDC, who was attending in Mr. Tunnell’s absence, was questioned about her possibly recording the executive session of the Alliance meeting,” McCullough said in the letter. “We are sorry if anyone on the Board believes this occurred.”
McCullough goes on to tell Blackwell that McKinney often takes notes at meetings she attends and sometimes uses her iPad to record items discussed in general session.
“She fully understands and never records during executive session, because of the confidentiality required for its success,” he said in the letter. “I understand she was asked to leave, but allowed to leave her purse, notebook, iPad in the room, because she would be returning, after topics about Lancaster County joining were discussed. While she was away, someone thought she was recording, but she was not. Her recording software blinks when it is on pause, or stopped recording, and on solid red when recording. Her red light was blinking, which meant it was not recording.”
He then assures Blackwell that a recording “did not occur.”
Finally, McCullough addresses a third concern he learned from Lancaster County Councilman Brian Carnes.
“(Carnes) was recently asked if our ED (economic development) team, ‘has been taken care of.’ I understand this to indicate some on the I-77 Alliance Board wants Lancaster County to join, but only if we remove some of our team members,” McCullough wrote in the letter. “We are very fortunate in Lancaster County that we now have a very strong Economic Development ‘team.’”
Three days after the letter was sent, the Alliance voted against including Lancaster County.
In an effort to learn more about the events leading up to the Alliance’s vote, The Lancaster News asked to sit down with Tunnell this week, though he refused to meet or comment on specifics.
“I will have no further comment on the Alliance situation. It (is) my understanding it is being resolved and I have instructed our staff to concentrate on our project load and marketing,” Tunnell said in an email statement sent Wednesday, June 25. “I have been instructed to concentrate on projects as well while this is being rectified. I will refer you instead to LCEDC Board Chairman Steve Gedney and County Council Chairman Larry McCullough.”
In response, The Lancaster News immediately filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with Tunnell and with Lancaster County Clerk to Council Debbie Hardin.
The request asks for access to and copies of all emails and written communications between Tunnell and Blackwell regarding Lancaster County’s inclusion to, and rejection from, the I-77 Alliance, dated between January and June 2014.
In another email, Tunnell later acknowledged receipt of the letter.
“I have been advised not to comment on the matter, but will get you the information as soon as possible. I think the county policy is that I must let the County attorney see it first and redact anything and approve it for release, but on my end I’ll have it done as soon as possible,” Tunnell said.
Hardin also acknowledged receipt of the FOIA letter on Thursday morning, June 26.
The county has 15 business days to respond to the request per the South Carolina FOIA.
Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416