Taxpayers left in dark on development deal

County residents are given no details and asked to simply trust elected officials on secretive land buy.

newsroom@islandpacket.comMarch 2, 2014 

Imagine being forced to pay for a product that you aren't allowed to see and don't know its purpose. All you know is it's supposedly good for you.

Most consumers would balk at the proposition. But that's what local leaders are asking of those who live in Bluffton and Beaufort County.

Bluffton Town Council and Beaufort County Council, along with the nonprofit Bluffton economic development group, are discussing contributing $1 million each to purchase land to lure an undisclosed business to Buckwalter Place.

No one involved with the negotiations will say what the business is. In fact, they won't even say what type of industry the company is in.

No one knows or will say the total amount of money each entity is willing to ultimately contribute to the project.

And most disturbing, no one will say how residents will benefit from this secretive deal.

And the clueless taxpayers will be on the hook whether the deal works out or not. The one condolence offered by these public officials is that if the sought-after business backs out, the three entities will own a valuable piece of land. This disregards the fact that local governments should not take private pieces of property off the tax rolls in the first place and hold onto them for an unknown, future use.

We find it disappointing that this land deal includes public bodies, supposedly committed to transparency and accountability, hiding behind the convenient excuse of "ongoing negotiations" to hold the public at bay. This appears more like the doings of private developers, risking their own money, not the taxpayers'.

All we know for sure is the three entities hope to form a corporation and spend the $3 million to buy about 34 acres of undeveloped property at the commercial development. But only about 10 to 12 of those acres are being marketed to a particular business. Translation: There will be similar deals in the future to lure other businesses.

We applaud County Council Chairman Paul Sommerville and Councilmen Bill McBride and Jerry Stewart who voted against giving immediate authority to take the money out of the county's reserve fund for the land purchase.

Sommerville has said he's not against the deal. He just wants more details to be ironed out before the money is spent.

Those details are actually big, looming questions, such as whether the county could finance its purchase in some other way than tapping the reserve fund and whether the newly-formed corporation would sell the undisclosed business the acreage or donate it as an incentive. And we're a bit baffled that a majority of County Council members agreed to the deal without knowing these details.

Why do these two questions loom particularly large?

  • On the first point, the county is working to grow its reserve fund because county staff and council members say it's a necessity to improve its rating with credit agencies and to guard against future hurricanes and other disasters. In fact, some council members have advocated raising taxes if necessary to keep the fund growing at a pre-determined rate of roughly $500,000 annually. And yet, a majority of council is suddenly willing to pull $1 million out of the fund (about two years of proposed savings) without knowing many of the details.

  • It gives credence to our fear that the reserve will be used as a quick and easy pot of money available whenever a supposedly great development deal comes along. With a quick vote by council, millions of dollars can be directed to secret land development projects with the public remaining in the dark about the players and benefactors, the level of risk and the hoped-for results.

  • To the second point, let's say, for argument's sake, the deal is to lure a hotel to the property. If the county is giving land to hotelier as an enticement, that would hardly be fair to other hotels that built in the area without any taxpayer-funded support. Why should future hotels locate in the area without similar deals? An honest discussion about the necessity and the rules of offering incentives should occur before the county offers them.

  • As part of the purchase agreement, the corporation, town and county would have 90 days to answer questions and finalize their payments after the sale is closed in the next week or so, according to county officials. That process will include public hearings and votes on financing or payment plans approved by each group.

    Honestly, there's little point in public hearings when the deal and its financing have already been approved and public dollars allocated. This seems nothing more than a symbolic nod to the public, clued in too late to affect the result.

    While it is possible that this is a once-in-a-lifetime development deal that will greatly benefit residents, the stain of a secretive start won't soon be forgotten. And we have a suspicion this is just the beginning of local government playing developer with public dollars.

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