COLUMBIA, SC — Columbia City Council – despite strident opposition from retired firefighters and police – gave final approval Tuesday to buying the Palmetto Compress warehouse using public funds and to searching for a private developer who would not demolish the historic structure.
An overflow crowd, in which opponents outnumbered preservationists and developers, forced council to move the meeting across the street to a courtroom in the municipal courthouse.
The debate about drawing $7 million from a reserve fund for health care benefits for retirees grew so testy the meeting almost needed a robed judge to gavel “order in the court.”
A 5-2 vote followed nearly two hours of heated exchanges among council members and from opponents of the financing deal, which will be handled by the Columbia Development Corp.
Councilwoman Leona Plaugh and Councilman Moe Baddourah cast the “no” votes.
The board of directors for the development corporation, an arm of the city’s business recruitment efforts, is to meet Friday to vote on accepting the deal. Fred Delk, the corporation’s director, said he has received about a dozen inquiries from local and out-of-state developers, none of whom he would identify.
Council decided to take the $7 million from the city’s $42.8 million reserve account used to cover long-term health care benefits for some 2,600 current and future Columbia retirees.
The $7 million would become seed money for a new account council created to become a pot of money for future economic development deals. All $7 million would go toward buying, improving and maintaining the four-story structure, which is on the National List of Historic Places. The warehouse is not a protected city landmark.
Mayor Steve Benjamin led the fight to approve the finance package, arguing the city is a “bridge over troubled waters” to save the former cotton warehouse and find a private company that would return a $60 million to $70 million investment to the tax roll.
Critics used words such as “speculative,” “a disservice to taxpayers,” and “robbing” from retirees’ health care fund to oppose the financing package for the warehouse purchase.
The latter was a major point of contention.
Plaugh insisted there is a close link between the reserve fund and the premiums employees and retirees pay. She repeatedly called the fund a health care account.
“Not one penny of your premium goes into the reserve,” Benjamin told retirees. “It is not, Ms. Plaugh, and you told all these people that.”
“Yes sir, it is,” she countered.
“Ms. Plaugh, it’s not true,” he said.
“Yes, it is,” she insisted.
Columbia’s chief financial officer, Jeff Palen, said the money that goes into the reserve fund comes from the budgets of each city department, not from employee premiums.
“You would have people believe that your council is being spendthrift,” Benjamin scolded Plaugh.
That back and forth continued, with the two often interrupting each other.
The exchanges prompted one baffled critic, Bailey McClinton, to say he tends to trust Plaugh’s 20-plus years of experience in city government, including stints as assistant city manager and city manager.
“Her facts are definitely wrong?” McClinton asked the mayor.
“Mr. McClinton, her facts are wrong,” Benjamin responded.
McClinton then turned to the ex-city manager. “What are we to believe, Ms. Plaugh?”
“You’ll have to pick and choose,” she answered.
McClinton seemed to capture the prevailing sentiment of opponents. “You’re asking 2,600 people to take all the risk,” he said of the possibility that a developer might not buy the warehouse.
Benjamin said city staffers have examined the deal closely and that he and staff members have consulted with experts in finance and property development. He said he’s confident a developer will improve the building into a gateway feature along a major thoroughfare.
That prompted one of the more pointed opponents, John Adams, son of former Mayor Patton Adams, to close the public comments with an admonition to those who voted for the sale: “This is an accountability issue, and we’ll elect you out.”
Reach LeBlanc at (803) 771-8664.