Newton's departure offers a moment to see how Beaufort County is doing

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comNovember 27, 2012 

Weston Newton

Weston Newton has served on County Council for 13 of the 16 years he has lived in Beaufort County.

It ended Monday night, with Newton receiving a lot of "thank-yous" before banging the gavel on 10 years as County Council chairman.

Then, early Tuesday morning, a new grind started. Newton made the two and a half hour drive from his home on Myrtle Island in Bluffton to Columbia to spend all day in an orientation session for freshmen of the state House of Representatives. He was elected earlier this month to represent District 120 and will be sworn in next week.

The Newton household -- wife, Rose, and children ages 11, 10 and 6 -- will have to adjust to a new, more distant public commitment that the 45-year-old attorney has brought on himself.

He leaves County Council talking about the community's "exceptionalism."

He sees better cooperation between local governments, which are all being asked to do more with less as the recession has cut revenues.

Newton warns the worst is yet to come, due to state-mandated property reassessment.

"Values are down and current projections indicate a countywide decrease from $45 billion to $33 billion," he said. "Services will need to be reduced or some folks will have to pay more on lower values."

County Council has already reduced appropriations from $104 million to $97 million and cut the county workforce by almost 20 percent.

After a period of raging growth, Newton used the slowdown to push for stronger stormwater management practices and mitigating stormwater runoff in existing development. He worked hard for clean waterways. And he worked hard for roads. In his tenure, development impact fees for roads were passed and citizens approved a temporary sales tax to raised $152 million for roads and bridges.

He points to recreation improvements, a new library on St. Helena Island, and a new facilities for adults with disabilities and special needs. But he said history will show the greatest legacy of this era will be the Beaufort County Rural and Critical Land Preservation program that has preserved 21,000 acres, supported by three public votes.

Newton said Tuesday that leaving is bittersweet. His life with Beaufort County government has gone on longer than life with his own children.

Three months after being elected chairman, the county lost its administrator and council was plunged into a year-long selection process that landed on Gary Kubic. At Newton's last meeting, Kubic's annual review was put into motion.

And when he first arrived on council, Newton joined the push for the University of South Carolina Beaufort to get four-year degree granting status, taking to Columbia the promise that the county would in return spend $40 million on new campuses for USCB and the Technical College of the Lowcountry. It happened. Newton says that has increased the university's economic impact from $19 million to $74 million with an additional 750 jobs.

On Monday night, the county paid off the bonds early that enabled that construction, saving $400 million in interest costs.

Things seemed to have come full circle. And the steady and always well-prepared voice of reason that has presided over more than 250 County Council meetings left the building.

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