Lexington, Richland counties join hands over breakfast

tflach@thestate.com dhinshaw@thestate.comJanuary 19, 2014 

— Monthly breakfast meetings are increasing cooperation among Lexington County and Richland County leaders.

New leaders in both counties plan to continue the exchange of ideas that occurs informally over eggs, toast, fruit and coffee at the Capital City Club across from the State House.

“It is important that we continue this dialogue,” Richland County Council chairman Norman Jackson said.

The sessions lasting up to 90 minutes began several months ago as a way for county officials to become allies instead of competitors.

“We need to try to work together, not be confrontational,” said Lexington County Councilman Bill Banning, who stepped down as chairman last week after helping start the sessions.

There’s no agenda, but topics have included dealing with problems such as homelessness, transportation, fire service and economic development as well as chats about families and football.

“That’s how you start really moving forward,” said Councilman Kelvin Washington, Jackson’s predecessor as chairman in Richland County. “Once you have a casual conversation, you figure out how to get it done.”

Meetings typically involve County Council leaders along with administrators. Sometimes municipal officials, legislators and other guests are invited.

Although they knew each other, it was rare for the leaders of both counties to socialize and stay in touch through telephone calls to keep abreast of each other’s activities, officials said.

The collaboration is starting to filter down, officials said.

Firefighters from both counties and area municipalities recently gathered with representatives of services that help determine Midlands fire insurance rates to exchange advice.

“The single biggest benefit of our monthly breakfast meetings has been our focus on the bridges that connect us rather than the river that divides us,” Lexington County administrator Joe Mergo said. “We’ve put our emphasis on trying to accomplish things we can agree on rather than spending time debating differences.”

The collaboration is a step that some business leaders urged to end what they felt was too often a territorial approach.

The meals – typically less than $40, officials say – are paid for by the Central S.C. Alliance, a group that promotes regional economic development.

Interest among county leaders in more cooperation is a welcome change in tone, said Randy Halfacre, president of the Greater Lexington Chamber of Commerce and a longtime advocate of such partnerships.

“At the end of the day, it’s about regionalism,” Halfacre said. “We’ve got to make sure we all work together.”

Working together

Ideas for regional collaboration that leaders of Lexington and Richland counties say developed at monthly breakfast meetings include:

Developing common computerized analyses of property values for assessment.

Agreeing to a study of rural transit needs.

Sharing maps to improve response to calls for emergency help along the I-26 corridor and north side of Lake Murray.

Discussing employee pay raises and insurance benefits.

Reach Flach at (803) 771-8483. Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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