County Council scraps $125K for Solicitor's Office, endorses texting ban

tbarton@beaufortgazette.comAugust 12, 2013 

Beaufort County Council overwhelmingly endorsed a proposal prohibiting drivers from texting while behind the wheel, but it split on whether to give an extra $125,000 to the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office.

At its meeting Monday in Beaufort, the council unanimously gave first-reading approval to bar motorists from composing, sending or reading electronic messages, such as texts or emails, while driving. It does not prevent drivers from using GPS navigation or hands-free phone functions. It is nearly identical to an ordinance adopted last month by the Town of Hilton Head Island.

The ordinance needs to pass two more readings before becoming law and would apply only to unincorporated areas of the county.

Motorists asking for emergency service would be exempt under the ban. So would on-duty emergency responders, such as police and EMS workers, using mobile electronics as part of their official duties.

Those caught violating the ban could be charged with a misdemeanor and fined $100 for the first offense, $200 for a second offense and $300 for third and subsequent offenses.

Neither council members nor the public discussed the ban at Monday's meeting.

Instead, deliberations focused on whether to grant an additional $125,000 to the Solicitor's Office.

The council seemed inclined to grant the supplemental allocation at its June 24 meeting, but its Finance Committee yanked support last week in a 3-2 vote after council members received a letter from Solicitor Duffie Stone describing cuts he made to his Beaufort County office, attributing them to "budgetary restraints."

Stone sought $1.4 million from Beaufort County for the budget year that began July 1. County Council awarded his office $1.06 million -- $100,000 more than last year. However, the office lost about $466,000 in state and federal grants that expired within the past year.

Stone eliminated three open prosecutor positions and suspended a "mob law" investigation on St. Helena Island. He did not attend Monday's meeting but has said he never asked for the $125,000 allocation and that council's decision won't result in additional cuts.

Councilman Bill McBride seized on that point during Monday's failed 5-5 vote to approve the increase. McBride voted against the increase along with Gerald Dawson, Brian Flewelling, chairman Paul Sommerville and Jerry Stewart.

A majority vote was required for the Solicitor's Office to receive the funding. The council has 11 seats, but one of them is vacant after Steven Baer's resignation at the end of July.

"It wasn't going to make any significant difference," McBride said after the meeting. "I have nothing against the solicitor. I think he does a fantastic job."

Councilman Stu Rodman argued the money was needed in part to offer high salaries to attorneys in Stone's office, who are paid less than counterparts elsewhere in the state and have left for private practice.

Councilwoman Laura Von Harten argued the "mob law" investigation and other programs implemented by Stone "have been highly effective, and we should continue to support them."

The vote did not affect supplemental allocations for Beaufort Memorial Hospital, the University of South Carolina Beaufort, the Technical College of the Lowcountry and the Hilton Head Island Recreation Center. A final vote on the $400,000 budget amendment for those four is scheduled for Aug. 26.

Follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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