It’s always sunny in Bluffton, South Carolina.
At least that’s the impression you’d get from the mayor and the town manager should you ever ask them a question that might tear at the town’s “Truman Show”-esque facade.
All is good. Nothing is wrong. How dare you suggest it’s raining.
Here, take a pom-pom.
Does everyone have a pom-pom now? Excellent!
Not that cheering isn’t warranted, mind you.
Bluffton is a wonderful place to live and not just because it does say so itself.
The town is beautiful. It’s friendly. It’s clean and safe. It’s quirky and fun and charming. It’s close to the beach and to two very cool cities. It has great local restaurants and shops.
Also its mayor, Lisa Sulka, is downright likeable and very engaged in the community.
But it’s time to stop pretending that everything is hearts, stars and rainbows, stamped by a kitten’s paw.
A pattern has emerged in Bluffton over the years.
When it comes to spending taxpayers’ money, the town has been erring on the side of “very generously.”
Whether it’s buying above-market-price property to build affordable housing in Old Town, striking a deal to pay a hefty salary to an absentee police chief, or opting to have an emergency services policy that resulted in a disproportionately high overtime bill during Hurricane Matthew, the town’s leadership seems to be lacking in fiscal restraint or the ability to say no to big-ticket ideas.
At first glance, this might seem like a run-of-the-mill ideological issue.
But this isn’t about whether or not you want to live in a town with limited public services or a town that publicly invests in its inhabitants’ future well-being, economic prosperity and quality of life.
If you remove all debate as to whether Bluffton should have spent money on a particular endeavor, the issue at hand distills to one very necessary question, which is: Did the town absolutely need to spend that much money on that endeavor?
And whatever the answer to that question may be, you can apply it to a second question, “Has town leadership been acting in good faith as stewards of our tax dollars?”
‘Nothing to see here, folks’
The town of Bluffton is financially healthy and has a robust reserve fund — which, at the end of fiscal year 2016, was estimated to be $10 million.
While there are different ideas as to how much money a municipality should keep in its reserves, across the country that amount is generally between 10 percent and 25 percent of a municipality’s general fund budget.
Bluffton’s was about 61 percent going into fiscal year 2017.
I point this out not just to say the town is flush, but to illustrate that if X equals an average or expected amount of money, then Bluffton’s formula appears to be X plus even more dough than that.
Consider the 2012 Wharf Street redevelopment project. The town was lauded nationally for its vision to build six energy-efficient cottages in Old Town to provide lower-income housing, using $1 million in federal money and around $300,000 in local funds.
When you look closely at that deal, though, you’ll notice that the town purchased property at what could be considered an inflated rate, especially when you take into account the down market at the time of the sale and the land’s immediate 81 percent drop in appraised value after houses were built on it.
When asked to explain their Wharf Street decisions earlier this year, town manager Marc Orlando and Mayor Sulka each gave answers that were sometimes inconsistent with their earlier statements but, more importantly, were basically different versions of “There’s nothing to see here, folks.”
They offered a similar response to two other instances of the town’s abundant spending.
First, the town hired a police chief in 2012 at a salary that represents nearly 100 percent more than the state average for chiefs, and 33 percent more than the national average.
But they didn’t just hire a police chief for a small police department. They hired Carmen Sandiego.
The job was given to Joey Reynolds, whose obligations to the FBI National Academy — an international social networking group for law enforcement officers — meant he would be traveling the world for what turned out to be at least 17 percent of his tenure here. They let him do this without having to take vacation time for it, meaning they paid him his above-average salary even though he told them before being hired that he wouldn’t consistently or physically be present to lead and manage this department.
And then, when he resigned this past summer — which was announced shortly after The Island Packet began pressing Orlando, Sulka and Reynolds on the matter — the town turned right around and paid him the $40,000 of vacation time they never made him use.
When asked to share their reasoning on this, Orlando and Sulka again went the “nothing to see here, folks” route.
They even seemed proud of the decision.
They pointed to what they saw as great value in Reynolds’ affiliation with the FBI National Academy, which certainly did lead to two Bluffton officers getting accepted to the FBI’s elite and highly sought-after two-month training program at Quantico.
It’s interesting to note, however, that since graduating from the academy, both of those officers have faced disciplinary actions and were reassigned by the Bluffton Police Department, one for a basic policing error and the other after continued complaints of his poor managerial skills.
Orlando and Sulka have also maintained “there’s nothing see here, folks,” when it comes to the disproportionately high overtime the town accrued during Hurricane Matthew.
Bluffton paid most of its police department 24 hours of time and a half, whether or not those hours were spent on-duty or at home, over the course of eight days, which made theirs the emergency management department with the longest activation.
Each employee who qualified for the overtime received a flat 195 hours, which meant most of them received game-changing pay-outs of several thousand dollars, including more than $16,000 for then-Chief Reynolds and around $12,000 for now-Chief Joseph Manning.
This would be understandable if Bluffton hadn’t been the most minimally affected by Matthew in all of Beaufort County and if the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, which was in charge of the county’s entire operations and has a staff that is about six times larger than that of Bluffton, hadn’t accrued overtime hours that were only 12 percent higher.
It simply makes no sense, especially when you find out that the town’s policy on emergency overtime does not meet the federal standards for FEMA reimbursement, something Orlando says he knew before Matthew.
Which would mean he was OK with the town holding the bill for money that other departments in the county will likely have reimbursed to them.
The bottom line
Is there nothing to see here, folks?
That depends on whether you are able to divorce your general feelings of warmth toward the town, individual personalities and endeavors you deem worthy, from your ability to see what’s at stake.
Orlando and Sulka have guided and nurtured the town to a point that is generally seen as successful, but they ought not confuse likeability and praise with total fulfillment of duty.
And we shouldn’t either.
At the end of the day, they are not only responsible for making the kinds of decisions that will help Bluffton achieve smart growth and prosperity, they are also the ones who help determine how much residents must contribute to achieve that vision.
There is only one word that matters here and that’s “trust.”
And that is hard to maintain when you have an increasing reputation for being big spenders of public money.
When asked to comment on the department’s overtime, Chief Manning told a reporter, “Marc Orlando takes care of his people.”
He meant this as a compliment.
And it is one.
As long as those “people” include the taxpayers who are footing these bills.