Steve Riley, Town Manager of the Town of Hilton Head Island, and Scott Marshall, Deputy Town Manager of the Town of Bluffton provided perspectives on their respective towns and fielded questions on a range of issues from League members and guests at our March 9 meeting.
According to Marshall, the Town of Bluffton has grown 1000 percent since its incorporation in 1852 as a summer coastal retreat to its present vibrant community. As a result of the annexation of a number of large pieces of property since 2000, what was once a one-square mile town is now a town of 17,000 people residing on the fifth largest municipal land mass in South Carolina. Because residents of unincorporated areas must petition to be annexed into the Town, there are "donut holes" and outlying communities of about 23,000 additional people who benefit from Town services but do not reside in the Town and, therefore, cannot vote for Town officials. Bluffton has received many accolades--including "one of the top cities for retirement" per Forbes Magazine and recognition of its Wharf Street Redevelopment Project as an outstanding example of revitalization.
Marshall cited many of the Town's current initiatives to protect and enhance the Town and its natural assets, including protection of the May River, expansion of Oyster Factory Park, and the creation of pathways, enhanced streetscapes, and additional parking. The Town is also planning to redevelop and enhance the Town Hall, which has a long history in the community but is not adequate to house Town operations.
The Town welcomes more "citizen leaders" to sit on its twenty boards and commissions and help realize the Town's vision of "appreciating the past, focusing on today, and planning together for a greater future."
Hilton Head Town Manager Steve Riley posed the question "Where do we go from here?" According to Riley, although the Hilton Head Island is a great place to live, it can always be better. Its current comprehensive plan consists of 187 good ideas but has no focus. Riley identified what he views as the Town's five core values-- beauty, enrichment, amenities, cosmopolitan, and hardy (BEACH)-- and what needs to be done to advance them.
Beauty--The beach is Hilton Head's core asset, which the Town needs to preserve through renourishment. Hilton Head is the only local government that does so with its own funding source. It also needs to complete the provision of sewer service to all and help those who can't afford to connect.
Enrichment--Hilton Head has an abundance of arts, culture, history, volunteers, churches, NPO's, and ethnic groups that enrich the Town. Riley feels the Arts Center should be recognized as the asset it is and that the Town should work to eliminate its debt. The impact of the arts is not just on tourists but residents and future residents. He also feels the USC-B hospitality campus will benefit the Town as well as students.
Amenities--These include parks, pathways, the Heritage, Concours d'Elegance, ecotourism, and children's activities. The Coligny area needs to be more than a parking lot but the "downtown" of Hilton Head.
Cosmopolitan--Hilton Head is not an isolated island but part of a newly designated metropolitan area that includes Bluffton, Beaufort, Port Royal, and Hardeeville and that will encompass Savannah in the future. Town elected officials need to think regionally, rather than competing with other municipalities. The Town's biggest traffic problem is getting people on and off the Island, not from circle to circle. The Town needs to reassert regional leadership and begin discussion of widening I-95, a project which will take 20 years but which no one, including DOT, is talking about.
Hardy--The Town needs to be out in front on things that make the Island resilient--e.g. infrastructure, energy conservation, and flood reduction. The South end now has the lowest rents on the Island. What happens to old buildings when tenants move north? No plan exists to address aging condominiums and to consider possible options such as workforce housing and open space.
During the question and answer session, Marshall and Riley fielded questions pertaining to the Chamber of Commerce contract vis a vis freedom of information, the Jasper Port, USC-B/traffic, and the fall referendum for capital projects. Likely Hilton Head capital projects include the Pinckney Island intersection, paving of dirt roads, arts center concept, and planning to replace the bridge to the mainland. Bluffton projects include improvements to Dr. Mellichamp Drive area and Oyster Factory Park.
What are the most pressing issues facing our country and our local communities on which the national League and our local League are uniquely equipped to make an impact? About thirty LWVHHI/BA members convened to tackle these questions at our February 10 program planning meeting. With a presidential election nearing and threats to our democracy looming as the result of the Supreme Court's Citizens United and Voting Rights Act decisions, our League unanimously concurred with the LWVUS's recommendation that Making Democracy Work should be the focus of national activity in 2016-2018.
We agreed that our local League's priorities for action in 2016-2017 should be 1) to help make democracy work by informing and engaging the electorate and by protecting voter and voting rights, and 2) to protect our natural resources. Based on grassroots input received at the meeting, a draft action plan will be presented to the board for its review. A final proposed plan will be submitted to the membership for a vote at the annual meeting in May.
Our national, state, and +-increasingly--local elections are awash in money. As part of a national League study on the effect of money in politics, over 35 League members participated in a lively discussion of what constitutes corruption, what restraints--if any--should be imposed on the use of money as an exercise of free speech, and what needs to be done to reform campaign financing.
Thanks to moderator Caroline McVitty, recorder Janet Law, and researchers and presenters MaryAnn Bromley, Alice Gianni, and Nancy Williams, League members were able to navigate this complex topic and to arrive at consensus on most of thirty-four questions.
Our League's input will be forwarded to the League of Women Voters of the United States (LWVUS), which will use it and that of other local Leagues in updating its policy on campaign finance.
The League of Women Voters of the United States President Elisabeth MacNamara delivered a spirited, and inspirational talk entitled "Celebrating Our Past, Embracing the Future" at our holiday luncheon.
According to MacNamara, 2010 was a year that marked the beginning of a "crisis for our democracy" as legislatures around the country passed laws "designed to suppress the vote of identifiable groups of eligible voters. Since 2011, the trend has continued and expanded. From early laws imposing restrictive voter photo ID requirements, proponents of limiting access to the polls moved to proof of citizenship requirements, cutbacks in early voting periods, repeal of same day registration, and attacks on the jewel in the crown of the civil rights era, the Voting Rights Act...In this crisis the League of Women Voters has taken a strong lead in protecting and powering the vote."
The League has been successful in rebuffing recent challenges by providing expertise and financial resources to the states in the thick of the battles and by taking new approaches to engaging voters. The League is registering voters in underserved communities--at high schools, community colleges and naturalization ceremonies--and utilizing on-line resources to provide urgently needed voter information.
Although this is a time of challenge, MacNamara also sees opportunities to engage a multitude of new people in our work. She likened our need to bring in not just more members, but also supporters, to those of League founder Carrie Chapman Catt who considered others in the suffragette movement as part of the League's "reserves." Unlike Catt's League, the League of the 21st century has the ability to engage new supporters with the click of a button. MacNamara called upon us to embrace the future with a "new mental attitude... just as we have done in our celebrated past...to ensure that the League of Women Voters is a force for change now and forever."
At our November 18 meeting, thirty members participated in a spirited discussion of consensus questions related to the LWVUS's national study on the structures of democracy. With the helpful research of four League members, Caroline McVitty moderated debate of the pro's and con's of fifteen questions pertaining to foundational criteria for any proposed amendment to the United States Constitution and the process of amending the Constitution.
To set a context for the discussion, Nancy Williams shared an LWVUS PowerPoint presentation entitled "An Update on Money in Politics," which provided an historical overview of the League of Women Voters' and the Supreme Court's roles in campaign finance regulation, the League's current campaign finance policy, and the rationale for updating the policy. In the wake of the 2010 Citizens United and the 2014 McCutcheon v. FEC decisions that, according to dissenting Judge Breyer, "eviscerated" rulings going back to 1907, there have been plans to reverse these decisions through state legislation and--possibly--by Congressional action or a states-called Constitutional Convention to add a 28th amendment to our Constitution.
On October 14, County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville shared his assessment of the state of our county by discussing a wide range of issues, including water quality, roads, the county's operating and capital budgets, debt, and economic development.
Water quality is a quality of life issue for the Lowcountry. Since the 1920's and 30's, exogenous species, sewage, and development have done damage to our county's water supply that the Council is trying to correct. Major efforts have included the creation of a storm water treatment department, the imposing of municipal and county storm water fees, and various retrofitting projects under the jurisdiction of a federal program applying to populations over 150,000.
Roads are another area of concern. According to Sommerville, we've been "behind the curve" as our roads become more and more congested. Beaufort County has 535 miles of state roads, most serving small neighborhoods, that the state is challenged to maintain. As a result, Beaufort County has spent about a half billion dollars on state projects (e.g. widening of Routes 278 and 170; the Broad River Bridge). So essentially, we're maintaining state roads, with some state contribution. The county is likely to need to maintain more because the state is eager to "devolve" to the county those roads not eligible for federal matching funds. In turn, the county will press for state funds to assist in maintenance. Overall, he Council is faced with a conundrum: increase taxes in order to get ahead of the curve--which most taxpayers don't like--or wait until the state of disrepair is critical, which leads to citizen complaints.
Chairman Sommerville feels the County Council has managed its operating expenses well and saved taxpayers' money. Displaying a chart showing Beaufort County's budget growth since 2008, Sommerville demonstrated that the county has been spending about $100 million per year from 2008 to 2015. Since these numbers are not adjusted for inflation, Council has saved about $30 million annually and has not indiscriminately cut programs and staff. When it comes to capital expenditures, the county has many future needs: replacing the Hilton Head bridges (a 10-year project); re-engineering the failed intersection at McGarvey's Corner; HVAC and roof replacements; building upgrades; a new detention center. Therefore, the Council will looking at a possible referendum to borrow funds for capital needs. Alternatively, it could impose a capital sales tax, or citizens could support a local option sales tax.
Sommerville prefers the latter since tourists would pay about 30-40 percent. One additional dollar in taxation would generate an additional $30 million per year--70% of which would go to property tax abatement. Nine million dollars would be distributed among the county and municipalities. And the County could leverage/"bond against" its share.
Beaufort County currently has $850 in outstanding debt. The lion's share is school debt. $135 million is for the preservation of rural and critical lands.
In regard to economic development, Sommerville candidly admitted that nothing the county has done has been successful and that there is "no magic bullet."
Mr. Sommerville responded to questions about educational funding, the flyover, the comprehensive plan, Administrator Kubic's retirement plans, location and number of county office buildings, Council's relationship with the school board, and fiscal autonomy for the school board, which he personally favors.
When asked what the biggest challenges for the county were in the next 25 years, Sommerville replied, "Roads and water quality and infrastructure."
As part of the information gathering process for the LWVSC study on healthcare in South Carolina, LWVHHI/BA put together a panel of area health providers to discuss their services and needs. Nancy Finch, RN, PhD, served as moderator. She is a senior hospital administrator at the Medical University of SC and a Clinical Assistant Professor at the College of Nursing at MUSC. Nancy is also a League member in Charleston. Assisting her was David Ball, RN, a State League Board member and the coordinator of the healthcare study. Panel participants were: Alison Burke, an attorney and the healthcare specialist for the local League, who shared her perspective on the needs of disabled patients in the healthcare system. Florry Gibbes is a Medical SpeechLanguage Pathologist who currently works for Amedisys Home Health. Omega SmallsFrancis is the area director of the Hilton head Office of the Coastal Empire Community Medical Health Center, a division of the SC Department of Mental Health, Tom Neal, RN, is the Chief Operating Officer at the Hilton Head Hospital. Ronald Smith, MD, a retired anesthesiologist, is currently the Medical Director of Bluffton -Jasper Volunteers in Medicine.
Each panel member described how he or she manages to serve clients even with limited resources. One of their many concerns was the difficulty clients have in keeping appointments or getting to the facility for care. Transportation is a major problem. Although the services have a sliding scale of fees, many clients cannot afford even a minimal cost. Many also cannot pay for referral care or medications. (Kroger and Publix offer some medications at no charge with a prescription. Walmart offers some medications at a low cost.) Thus their illnesses often become worse. Some clients have insurance, but it often does not cover the costs of many needed procedures. A large number of individuals aged 19 to 64 do not have medical insurance. Some 170,000 people in SC do not qualify for insurance under the Affordable Care Act. All of the agencies do their best to provide care to everyone who needs it. Communication with related organizations is often difficult because of different systems used by each and because of regulations protecting privacy rights. The Medical Health Center initiated innovative ways to better serve its clients, especially those who are in the workforce. The agency is open early and late, and it uses staff members who speak a second language to remind clients of appointments and to follow -up on missed appointments.
More should be done to help people with mental health issues--the local hospital does not offer psychiatric services. Health benefits should not be cut off for disabled individuals when they join the workforce. Providing information about health services and healthful living to nonEnglish speakers, the deaf, blind, and illiterate is a challenge. Pediatric services in the local area are limited. The Hilton Head Hospital does not offer them because the population is too small to make it cost effective. VIM does not give services to individuals under 18 because children have access to government health programs. Undocumented individuals often do not use even free health services because they fear being reported to immigration authorities. The consensus among the panelists was that healthcare is a human right, and the state should uphold that right by providing at least a minimal level of services. Keeping people healthy saves money in the long run because they can work and thus pay taxes and use fewer government-funded services.
At the invitation of the Bluffton Library, a panel of past and current League leaders, moderated by librarian Armistead Reasoner, shared their recollections of our League's activities in its twenty-nine-year history. Pat Tousignant, President from 1994 to 1997, recalled the efforts of founders Virginia Sweet and Bea Chait to organize a provisional League in the early 1980's as the Town of Hilton Head Island was coming into being. She also shared a copy of a letter she had written as President to every U.S. Senator when our League adopted a policy supporting universal healthcare in 1994. In reviewing our archives, Pat recalled that the regional issue of water and a local issue of standards of decency were among the issues addressed by the League in its early days. In response to a proposed town referendum regulating "adult" businesses, our League held a forum to discuss the referendum questions, which today seem quite quaint.
Sally McGarry, President from 2001-2005, emphasized that the core mission of the League of Women Voters is to encourage active and informed participation in government by providing a variety of voter services, including candidate forums and voter registration. She also highlighted the issues that occupied our League from 1997 to 2005. Among them--in addition to healthcare-- were sewers, the Hilton Head airport, shoreline issues and natural resource protection, community development and housing, education tax increment financing, and voting machines. Many of these issues continue to occupy our League.
Former President Karen Wessel (2011-2013) said she had become acquainted with the League because of her interest in education and her efforts to pass the first school bond referendum in 1994. She found a welcoming home in the League, which has studied and taken positions on universal kindergarten, early childhood education, teacher evaluation and retention, teaching standards, charter schools, and state and local funding of education. During Karen's tenure as president, the Bluffton League of Women Voters merged with the Hilton Head League in 2010 to form the League of Women Voters of Hilton Head Island/Bluffton Area, thereby expanding our membership and influence.
President Fran Holt shared some of her hopes for our future, which included continuing to press for state ethics reform, maintaining a strong observer corps in Hilton Head and Bluffton, and becoming more technologically savvy. She invited guests to join us in making democracy work.