County council votes down TCTC ballot question

By Jason Evans
Staff Reporter

COUNTY — Pickens County Council again discussed the idea of allowing voters to decide if county funds should be used to pay for improvements at Tri-County Technical College.

But the feeling among council was that a referendum would appear on ballots “way too late.”

Earlier this year, council members hoped to place that issue before voters on the November general election ballots.

But the county missed a deadline for ballot questions by mere hours.

On Monday night, during their October meeting, council took up the referendum issue again, discussing whether to pass an ordinance allowing for a non-binding advisory question to be put to voters.

Pickens County Council members have long maintained that the county’s obligation to the technical college is only in operations and maintenance — and have argued that new or improved facilities do not fall under those categories.

“Our part is maintenance and operations, and we completely satisfy and fulfill that every year,” Councilman Tom Ponder said.

The question, after being amended by Councilman Neil Smith, would have read, “Do you support spending $6,750,000 of Pickens County property tax funds for the Tri-County Technical College Student Activities Center versus the funds being provided by education funds of the State of South Carolina?”

Council members have often voiced their belief that the state is responsible for funding facilities at technical colleges, not counties.

Councilman Trey Whitehurst wondered if the wording made it clear to voters that they had a choice.

“They really do,” Smith said. “We’re not obligated to do it — but we can do it. That’s the real question, do the voters want us to go ahead and spend property tax on an issue that the state should do?”

“Would you be willing to spend money out of your pocket for something that the state of South Carolina should take care of?” Ponder asked.

“We’re not really against the total project,” Smith said. “We were just against the fact that we have to pick up the check.”

County attorney Ken Roper said he saw no issues with the wording of the ballot question. The amendment passed 5-1, with Ponder opposing.

Speaking during the public forum session, Dan Winchester of the Pickens County Taxpayers Association had urged council to hold a special referendum on the issue before the end of the year.

Council chair Jennifer Willis said that was not possible.

“Based on state law as it relates to elections, if we pass this ordinance, then it’s like 60 or 90 days after that the language is drafted and the voting machines are put out,” she said.

County administrator Gerald Wilson said the earliest the question could go before voters would be Feb. 17, 2017.

Most council members agreed that was too long to wait.

“There’s not going to be a good turnout,” Ponder said of the special referendum, if one was held.

“I think the turnout would be dismal,” Willis agreed. “Being completely off the radar, being the only thing on the ballot.”

Council also balked at the cost of the referendum — an estimated $56,000.

“On a good day, on a major election, we hit 10 percent turnout,” Willis said. “And we pat ourselves on the back, and quite frankly that’s an embarrassment. I have real reservations about spending $60,000 in February to get the answer to a question that I don’t really think is going to be representative of what most people think, because I don’t think most people will show up and participate.”

“We’re trying to give the new council some maneuvering room,” Smith said. “This is not going to give them any maneuvering room at all.”

Smith said election costs have gotten out of control, stating he believed the referendum should cost half of the estimated $56,000.

Ponder asked Roper if there was anyone in Columbia who could definitively rule on who was responsible for funding the facilities.

“It’s either right or it’s wrong,” he said. “If state law says that this is something that’s our responsibility, it’s our responsibility. I know the state law says we can, it gives us the option of doing it, but is it required? In my opinion, we’re not (required).”

Roper said the S.C. attorney general could answer that question.

Smith said he believes the only building among the project that the county is responsible for funding is the college’s physical plant.

Second reading of the referendum ordinance failed 1-5, with Councilman Ensley Feemster casting the only vote in favor.

“I’m interested in what my people think about it,” Feemster said.