Richland Council might freeze Rec Commission’s funding

Richland County Council will consider proposals related to the county Recreation Commission and Voter Registration & Elections board on Tuesday night.
Richland County Council will consider proposals related to the county Recreation Commission and Voter Registration & Elections board on Tuesday night. File photograph

The controversial Richland County Recreation Commission could lose nearly two-thirds of its funding if one County Council member has his way.

On top of that matter, another embattled county agency, the elections office, has council members frustrated and confused about how a long-overdue legal bill to the tune of $38,000 will be paid.

Council soon will consider a proposal by Councilman Greg Pearce to freeze funding for the Recreation Commission until five board members agree to resign.

Last month, 10 out of 17 Richland County legislators demanded the resignations of board chair J. Marie Green and vice chair Barbara Mickens, both also named as defendants in civil lawsuits; board secretary Weston Furgess Jr.; George Martin Jr.; and Joseph Weeks in light of multiple allegations of inappropriate behavior by Green, Mickens and the board’s hired director, James Brown III.

The seven-member Recreation Commission board is appointed by state legislators, while the county funds the department’s operations.

“If it takes shutting down the parks system to affect a change, then that is what we need to do,” Pearce told The State newspaper, noting that he does not know whether that sentiment is shared by others on council. “The legislative delegation, I think, built a compelling argument that malfeasance exists within that body and that five people are responsible for that.”

Earlier this year, council agreed to freeze the Recreation Commission’s funding at the state-mandated $4.9 million for the 2016-17 financial year until an audit examines how the department spends its money. The department’s budget would remain at that level – $8.8 million less than the budget it had requested – if council agrees to Pearce’s new proposal.

Efforts by The State on Tuesday to reach Recreation Commission chief of staff Tara Dickerson for comment on the funding matter were unsuccessful. Dickerson is handling the commission’s day-to-day operations while Brown is on voluntary leave.

Pearce’s proposal was forwarded Tuesday night to a council committee that meets at a later date.

Meanwhile, council members debated for nearly an hour over whether the Voter Registration & Elections office should be able to pay out of its county-appropriated budget $38,740 in attorney’s fees owed to a lawyer who filed a suit against the board and its members in 2014.

The elections office needs council’s approval – which requires a time-consuming three votes and a public hearing – to alter its line-item budget to pay the legal bill. Elections director Samuel Selph has said his office has the money to write the check if he is given the OK, Councilman Jim Manning said Tuesday.

Though council members expressed sympathy for the former board members who have faced financial difficulties as a result of being a party to the suit against the board, a number of council members expressed skepticism at the ability of the elections office to absorb the $38,000 into its existing budget.

Some also questioned why the county’s legislative delegation, which appoints the elections board, has not stepped in to pay the legal bill.

“It’s embarrassing for the (former board members) to have served and be in this predicament, but we’re all sitting here knowing that this commission has overspent (its budget in the past),” Councilwoman Dahli Myers said. “It’s obvious the money isn’t there.”

Before the end of the last financial year in June, Selph had asked council to give his office an additional $1 million to avoid a budget shortfall – council turned down the request.

With Selph not present at Tuesday’s meeting to provide clarity on how he would balance his budget, council members opted to take up the matter next week after staff members have worked with Selph to devise possible solutions.

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.

Dam taxes one step closer

County Council gave initial approval Tuesday to the creation of four special tax districts to finance the restoration of dams at Cary Lake, Upper Rockyford Lake, Lower Rockford Lake and Beaver Dam Lake.

Members of those homeowners associations previously voted to add a special assessment to their property tax bills in order to leverage loans that will pay for reconstruction of their dams damaged by the October 2015 floods.

Council will vote twice more before the special tax districts are officially approved. The special assessment will be added to those residents’ tax bills this fall.