Politics & Government

Hilton Head mayor to yank Sheriff’s Office funds, calling double taxing ‘offensive’

Saying he is tired of Hilton Head essentially paying for law enforcement services it is not receiving, Mayor John McCann has sent notice the town will end its “offensive” agreement with the county and yank $3 million in annual funding that goes toward the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office budget.

However, instead of reducing town expenses or redirecting that $3 million for other purposes, McCann has proposed what he describes as an even trade, telling the county the town is willing to take on current county responsibilities for parks, roads and the Island Recreation Center.

The plan was laid out in a letter to county leaders and obtained by The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette, and it is not clear how receptive the county will be. The recipient of the letter, County Council chairperson Stu Rodman, said Friday that “it’s a creative proposal on the part of the mayor. That’s less revenue coming in, (but the) county would have less expenditures in the area of parks, recreation and roads.”

McCann’s position brings full-circle long-simmering tension in the town toward its relationship with the sheriff’s office that dates back to the term of former Mayor David Bennett and includes a 2018 audit that concluded the sheriff’s office was not using a data-driven approach to address crime and traffic issues and spending too much time pursuing 911 hangups and false alarms.

And although McCann is careful not to criticize the sheriff’s office’s performance and says is he not seeking additional services or a change in services, his stance reflects a huge shift from just last year, when he campaigned on a promise to mend the town’s relationship with the law enforcement agency.

The same as everyone else?

The premise of McCann’s letter is that Hilton Head taxpayers are shelling out twice for law enforcement services: once in taxes property owners pay to Beaufort County and again in the form of a $3.6 million annual payment from the town’s general fund.

John McCann takes his seat as mayor for the first time on Dec. 4, 2018. Katherine Kokal, The Island Packet.

He said the additional payments happened with a “misplaced understanding” that Hilton Head was paying extra for more services in comparison with other towns. After meeting earlier this year with Sheriff P.J. Tanner, McCann said he realized the town was getting the same amount of law enforcement.

But McCann said the island is getting only “minimal” services from the sheriff’s office on things like town ordinances, so he proposed the town reduce its funding of the sheriff’s office starting in just 8 months — at the end of the current fiscal year on June 30, 2020.

“We shouldn’t be paying at all because we pay as county residents to start with,” he told The Island Packet Thursday.

For his part, Sheriff P.J. Tanner says he’s neither worried nor upset by McCann’s letter, saying it won’t have an effect on the level of service the town receives.

“I don’t police based on a dollar amount that someone contributes. Quite frankly that’s a negotiation between the town and the county,” he said. “I didn’t see anything in that letter that was negative toward the services of law enforcement.”

The trade-off

In his letter, McCann suggested the town take over three different areas where the county spends money on the island in exchange for the $3 million budget cut:

  1. Take over responsibility for six county-maintained parks on the island: Barker Field and Barker Field extension, Crossings Park, Bristol Sports Arena, Chaplin Community Park and Old Schoolhouse Park
  2. Relieve the county of around $300,000 in subsidies to the Island Recreation Association
  3. Accept ownership and responsibility of the 76 county-owned roads on the island
Chaplin Park.jpeg
Tennis courts at Chaplin Community Park. Mandy Matney mmatney@islandpacket.com

Asked whether those offers will combine to equal $3 million, McCann said, “I don’t know if it’s dollar for dollar ... but it’s pretty close.”

But McCann’s offers to the county put Hilton Head on the hook for more spending — which is contradictory to his apparent feeling about the unnecessary contribution to the sheriff’s office.

McCann couldn’t say why he was offering a trade instead of taking a harder line on double taxing, but instead highlighted the benefits he sees to taking over spending from the county.

“We’ll get better service for maintaining the parks and control of the roads our residents drive on every day,” he said.

Whether the trade-off will be equal remains to be seen.

The cost of maintaining the 76 county-owned roads on the island could not be immediately provided by the town, the county finance department, public works department or engineering department.

Smooth sailing under McCann?

The move comes after a year of changes in the relationship between the town, county and sheriff’s office.

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner listens to a reporter’s question in 2018. Drew Martin dmartin@islandpacket.com

Mending the relationship with the sheriff’s office was one of McCann’s campaign promises in 2018 following an unflattering audit of the department, which said native islanders feel their neighborhoods lack patrols, deputies take too long to respond to mental health calls and the agency doesn’t implement a data-driven approach to crime and traffic safety and isn’t doing enough to address the opioid epidemic.

Tanner said the audit was sparked by a few town leaders — including former Mayor Bennett — who were unhappy with his opposition to an Ironman competition that council wanted to bring to the island in 2015. Tanner opposed the competition because he said shutting down part of U.S. 278 posed safety concerns.

At the time, Bennett said in a text message response to an Island Packet reporter that the performance audit had “nothing to do with the Ironman,” and the purpose of the audit was “to find out if Hilton Head residents were “getting a good return for their considerable investment.”

Bennett’s concerns about how the sheriff’s office gets paid appear to have carried over to the new mayor, although McCann has been a full-throated supporter of Tanner since he was sworn in.

Under McCann, the town stopped charging rent to the sheriff’s office in August for its southern command center on Shelter Cove Lane. In years past, the sheriff has paid $65,000 per year for the office space, according to assistant town manager Josh Gruber.

The southern command post for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office on Hilton Head Island. The office is located on Shelter Cove Lane mid-island. Katherine Kokal The Island Packet

Reached Friday about the change in Hilton Head’s contributions to the county, Bennett appeared to support the move.

“My thinking lines up with Mayor McCann,” Bennett said, adding that his goal as mayor was to “make sure that the town’s tax dollars were producing the very best returns.”

What’s next?

Hilton Head’s voluntary contribution makes up just 10% of the department’s $30.6 million budget, which is paid in full by the county and reimbursed in part by the municipalities.

The sheriff’s office budget is the county’s largest expense, according to budget documents.

In order for the change suggested by McCann to take hold, county council chairperson Rodman said county staff will analyze the suggestion and choose whether to recommend it.

If recommended, Rodman said the council will negotiate the issue with the town and vote on it as an amendment to next year’s budget.

The alternative to contracting with the sheriff’s office would be the island getting its own police force, which both McCann and Tanner say is not an option.

That would be an expensive endeavor, as other municipalities have found.

Last year, Bluffton paid $6.6 million for its 58 full-time employee department, spokesperson Debbie Szpanka told The Island Packet in 2018.

Beaufort allocated $4.4 million for its 54 sworn officers, spokesperson Patrick Schmucker said that same year.

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Katherine Kokal moved to South Carolina in 2018 after graduating from the University of Missouri and loves everything about the Lowcountry that isn’t a Palmetto Bug. She has won South Carolina Press Association awards for in-depth and government beat reporting. On the weekends, you can find Kati doing yoga and hiking Pinckney Island.