Some on school board question participation in Bluffton economic-development deal

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comJuly 13, 2014 

When the Beaufort County Board of Education voted in April to help purchase land at Buckwalter Place to entice companies to locate there, several board members said the school district should not get involved.

About three months later and just weeks before a deal is expected to close, those doubts among the board still exist, and may be growing.

Some even wonder whether an agreement among Beaufort County, the town of Bluffton and the town's development corporation even allows the district to participate in the deal.

QUESTIONS RAISED

The Bluffton Public Development Corp. says it is brokering the deal to buy 34 acres at Buckwalter Place for around $4 million to attract various companies, whose names have not been revealed publicly. The county and town have agreed to kick in $1 million each, and the corporation is responsible for the remainder.

The school district has agreed to forgo as much as $923,000 in tax revenue over the next 10 years to participate in the deal.

That money would be used to pay back part of a $1.8 million loan to the corporation from Santee Cooper. The corporation believes that if it can buy the land from developer Tom Zinn by July 31, it has a shot at recruiting a company to locate there.

Now some school board and County Council members are questioning whether the district should even be able to participate.

That's because a section of the agreement says no school district tax revenue should be used. County Councilman Jerry Stewart, who chairs the council's economic development committee, said the intent of that section was "to stop the school board's involvement and not ask them to participate financially."

But some school board members say that part of the agreement was not presented to them.

School board member Evva Anderson, the school board's ex-officio member on the corporation's panel, said Friday she was unaware of it.

If that was written, "then why did they come to us asking for our participation and our help?" she said.

Anderson, who originally voted for participating in April, could not say if knowing that information would have changed her vote, but she said she would have taken it under consideration.

Several county and district officials -- including county attorney Josh Gruber and district superintendent Jeff Moss -- have worked to determine a contribution method that would allow the school district to participate while still following the agreement.

Under that method, the property-tax revenue from the Buckwalter Place development would still be paid to the school district. However, the school district would then turn around and pay those same revenues to a special tax fund. That fund will be used to pay back the loan.

While that method follows the language of the agreement, Stewart questions whether it follows the "intent."

So does school board member Jim Beckert.

"I think that some on the board and those that represent the county have developed a process that skirts around the spirit of that document," Beckert said. "If these groups felt so strongly that we should participate, then why didn't they bring it forward in an open and transparent way and say we need to change this agreement to allow the district to participate?"

Beckert, who was absent April 15 when the board approved contributing to the fund in a 6-4 vote, said he would have voted against it.

However, the board can only reconsider the deal if one of the board members who voted for it in April made a motion to change his or her vote. So far, it does not appear anyone who voted for it wants to change his or her position.

DEFENDING THE DEAL

During a meeting called Tuesday by the school board to ask the development corporation questions about the agreement, Beckert asked what would happen if the school board withdrew from the deal.

The development corporation's chairman, Roberts Vaux, responded that would cause a "humongous problem," because the corporation would lose half of the projected revenue to pay back its $1.8 million loan from Santee Cooper.

Vaux said he did not know if he had presented the document concerning the school district's tax revenue to the school board during the corporation's presentation in April. But he did not think he needed to, he added, because the agreement is between the county, the town and the corporation -- and not the school district.

The agreement was written in a way so the school district would not be a party to it and not be required to participate, council chairman Paul Sommerville said.

"If the school district on their own accord wants to negotiate a deal with Buckwalter folks and give up some of their taxes," he said, "that is not our place to take an issue with that."

School board chairman Bill Evans said he still believes the Buckwalter project is a good investment. He said the school district's shrinking property-tax revenue stream has forced it to get involved in trying to expand the tax base. Helping to bring in industry will make that happen, he said.

But he also said he knows the board is strongly divided on whether the district should be involved in economic development. To address the issue, the board's Finance Committee will look at crafting a policy to determine when the district would participate in such projects, he said.

Board members who oppose the Buckwalter Place deal -- such as Beckert, JoAnn Orischak and Geri Kinton -- and Councilman Stewart think the school district can better help with economic development in a different way.

"I think the school district has a vested interest in seeing economic development be successful," Stewart said. "But they should not be using their resources for the financial backing, but spending them to create a ready and quality workforce for the jobs and industry we are trying to bring in."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

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