Opinion

County should get details before voting on purchase

Ten months after the Lowcountry Economic Network approached Beaufort County about buying an industrial park the group owns, we still don't have the specific information that would help determine whether this is the right thing to do.

But that didn't stop Beaufort County Council from voting Monday to move ahead with the purchase. It was the first of three votes needed.

Why don't we have the information today that the council says is necessary to make a final determination?

At Monday's meeting, the council didn't discuss the purchase. Details are to be discussed in a Finance Committee meeting Tuesday.

"It will be vetted in committee," said county administrator Gary Kubic. "If it receives a recommendation from committee to move forward, the second reading will be more explicit with the terms and conditions."

If it can be done that quickly and thoroughly, why wasn't the information available for the first vote?

The economic development group asked the county last March to purchase its holdings in the 200-acre park off U.S. 21 near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. It owed about $2.4 million of the $2.9 million it borrowed to buy the property in March 2006.

The group had planned to pay off the three-year loan as it sold property, but it has sold only 30 acres of the 180 acres suitable for building. The remaining 20 acres are wetlands.

When it sought to refinance in 2009, it was told that its interest-only financing would continue just through the end of the year. As a result, the network's monthly payments doubled to $20,000 a month, Kim Statler, the group's executive director said last March. That was an amount the group couldn't afford for the long term.

Now the group is approaching the fifth anniversary of its three-year loan. Deadlines probably are looming.

In March, the council authorized Kubic to offer up to $1.5 million for the park, but that offer was rejected.

In May, Council Chairman Weston Newton, who was generally in favor of the purchase, posed these questions:

"Where's the money coming from and what are we willing to give up? What are the taxpayers willing to give up? I still remain very stumped at that question and frustrated."

Another question: Why hasn't property been selling there? The property has utilities, including a stormwater management system. The economic development group says it's in a great location and has lots of potential.

If most of the property didn't sell before the economic downturn, why do county officials think it will sell now? And if it isn't sold for industrial development, what else can be done with it? And if $1.5 million wasn't acceptable, what price will have to be paid?

County officials in May mentioned it as a possible site for a solid waste transfer station. How much property would that entail?

Councilman Steve Baer was the lone vote against the proposal Monday.

"In terms of looking out for the people's interests, we don't know if this is a good plan or not that we're rushing forward to finance. We don't know what the alternatives are, we don't even know what the total costs are," Baer said. "What we're doing here is, without any more data, we're taking two weeks out of the review process ... "

And, he said, the vote creates the impression that council has made up its mind on the project.

It's more than an impression. The council signaled last March that this would happen. Now we'll see what information will justify a purchase and under what terms it will happen -- a case that should have been made before the first vote.

It never sits right when a government body votes on an issue with so little information in hand, and 10 months after a proposal is first made, that's especially true.

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