News Archive

(1106) Week of Mar 15, 2006

Town’s past, future being sold to satisfy IRS debt
Town officials unresponsive to renters on donated lots
2006 budget work continues at Williamston work session
West Pelzer looking at joint sewer options
Free baby baskets now available to new moms
State budget passes full committee
Seems to Me . . Where is the compassion?

Town’s past, future being sold to satisfy IRS debt

To some they are just surplus properties. To others they are the town’s past and future. To a select few, it is their home. The sale of town owned properties to satisfy delinquent taxes due to the IRS has caused concerns for several town residents and the need for a closer look by town officials.

Questions have arisen over the legalities of selling town owned properties which were purchased with state grant monies and/or have deed restrictions.  Others are concerned about selling properties that have historical value.

Also on the list are properties that are needed for access right of ways and others needed for roads if the town gets past the current crisis and does experience growth.

At the suggestion of Appalachian Council of Governments (ACOG) advisor Joe Newton, who is helping the town work through their financial meltdown, the Town of Williamston will be selling “all non essential property”, a list of approximately 42 parcels, by auction at the Williamston Municipal Center on Thursday, March 30.

Mayor Phillip Clardy said the sale will include about 30 properties, though town officials are still evaluating the list.

The absolute auction is being promoted as “Town of Williamston Surplus Property Auction” and are being sold in “As-Is, Where is” condition. Details can be found online at www.auctionexpert.com, the website of auctioneer J. M. Johnson who will conduct the auction.

The list of properties and the promotional material being made available for the auction show at least six questionable properties.

Included are the old town hall building which is slated to be the town’s museum, the old recreation center or Gossett Street School building which has historical value, a piece of property purchased from the Lander family, which has deed covenants on the use, assorted lots donated to the town which have trailer park renters currently living on them, a right of way to the watershed reservoir dam, and property with sewer lines already on it.

All of these properties have their own problems. 

Several residents raised questions during recent council meeting about restrictions they say exist on certain properties.

Pamela Owens, a member of the Williamston Area Historic Commission has asked Councilman Greg Cole to have council consider taking the Museum and the Gossett Street School building off the list because of their historical value. There are also legal considerations about the two properties.

The Town received a state grant of $50,000 in 2000 for a museum. Town officials had designated the old city hall as the site for the museum location and a committee has been working toward that goal. Some demolition in preparation for the necessary upgrades on the interior has been done and approximately $14,000 was spent on window replacements. During a work session today, (Mar. 15) Realtor Hugh Durham and Mayor Clardy said there was no grant tied to the building, only that it was for the museum.

Mayor Clardy said that he was not prepared to make a definite decision on the property. Durham urged Council to make a decision on the property in the next two to three days.

According to deeds at the Anderson County Courthouse, the Gossett St. School building was deeded to the town by Textron in 1954.

The deed states that “this property is hereby conveyed for use by the grantee (Town of Williamston) for municipal purposes (including recreation and entertainment) only, and shall not be devoted to private use.” It was deeded to the Williamston Recreation Center, Inc. on May 20, 1955 for “recreational purposes only.”

The building was used as the Williamston Recreation Center until the 1980s when liabilities and costs forced the swimming pool at the location to be closed. It was also used for YMCA satellite programs for several years.

Since then the building has been used primarily for storage of  the town’s Christmas decorations and other items. The WAHC was working to have the building placed on the National Historic Registry and proposed using the building as a satellite to the museum if needed.

Property listed on Main St. and Cemetery  St. now Gossett St., was deeded to the town for recreational purposes according to comments made by Olive Wilson during the Mar. 6  meeting of Council.

Wilson is a local historian and is related to the prominent Lander family which founded Lander College in the town.

She stated concerns about  restrictions associated with the property not only because it was purchased with a state grant, but because it is designated for recreational use as a part of the Mineral Spring Park. The property, located  in the vicinity of the park, is primarily used for parking for crafters during the annual Spring Water Festival.

The deed for the property, also known as the Lander property, states that on June 10, 1985, the property was sold by Mary Lander Bell, f/k/a Mary Lander Henderson, to the Town of Williamston for “$5 and other valuable consideration.” The property was originally owned by W. T. Lander.

The deed also states “this property has been acquired with the state financial assistance provided by the recreation land trust fund. This property may not be converted to other than public outdoor recreation uses (whether by transfer, sale or in any other manner) without the express written approval of the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Commission. The SCPRT Commission shall approve such conversion only if it finds such conversion to be in accord with the then existing comprehensive statewide outdoor recreation plan and only upon such conditions as it deems necessary to addure the substitution of other recreation properties of at least equal fair market value and reasonable equivalent usefulness and location.

Though the information was readily available online at the Anderson County Web site and at the County Courthouse, Mayor Phillip Clardy dismissed her comments, stating the town did not have the records and added, “We should have a lot of information we don’t have.” Clardy said that the properties will be sold with a clear title.

“We will reserch each property and will, to the best of our knowledge, ensure that the person has the right to it,” he said during the Mar. 6 meeting.

The sale of 21.5 acres located on Cherokee Road still raises questions.

Council discussed the property several times since July 2004 when it was first proposed by Mayor Clardy to use proceeds from the sale of the property to repay a $350,000 Bond Anticipation Note.

The property was discussed again in January of 2005. At that time there was some discussion of checking 

into the value of timber on the property and the consideration of whether it should be sold with or without the timber.

The question of having the timber harvested raised additional questions concerning the possibility of damaging the sewer infrastructure on the overgrown property.

The town acquired the 21 acres “as a gift” from late councilman David Roberts in 1989, six years after sewer improvements were made by the town on the privately owned property.

The improvements were made in the early 1980s and paid for with two grants totaling $83,500 that were acquired through the Town of Williamston.

The low income development never happened and eventually the property was deeded to the town, though follow through paperwork was not finalized, leaving the property in limbo until Clardy came into office and began looking into the situation.

It was determined that the town needed to finalize court records and incorporate the property to legalize the transaction and officially make the acreage property of the town.

Clardy presented the matter of annexation to Council in 2001.

An estimate by Site Design valued the existing sewer improvements on the property at approximately $161,177 if the work were done in 2004 and at $89,240 in 1981, depending on the inflation rate.

A real estate appraisal was conducted, though Mayor Clardy declined to make the results public.

The sale of the property was being touted by the mayor as an option to repay a $350,000 BAN note which was used to pay outstanding debt the town had accumulated and to pay the town’s health insurance and state retirement obligations.

The property was not sold during 2005 and the BAN was in default at the end of the year due to a lack of funds to repay it.

Questions abound about property which was recently donated to the town by Mary T. McPhail.

The town accepted ownership in December 2005 of the property which includes eleven lots.

The gift includes eleven parcels, valued at $99,000, from Mary T. McPhail and one parcel valued at $2,500, from David Tucker.

There was no public discussion about renters being on the properties until Mayor Clardy stated during a recent council meeting, that renters on the property were attempting to pay the town rent, but were being turned away because the town had no policy on how to deal with the rent money.

During the Feb. 20 work session, the question of renters was also raised by a citizen. ACOG advisor Joe Newton responded, “It should have been taken care of before it was done.”

When asked about the situation, Mayor Clardy stated that the town “didn’t want to become landlords.” Town attorney, Richard Thompson gave the same response. (See separate story in this issue of The Journal).

Mayor Clardy has stated that the list of properties is tentative and that the town reserves the right to add or remove any properties within 24 hours in advance of the auction.

Clardy said the town will look at every single piece of property to determine its short term and long term use.

Council decided in the Mar. 15 work session to proceed with selling 14 acres on Ida Tucker Rd. near the reservoir.

Town officials unresponsive to renters on donated lots

By Stan Welch

 The financial straits in which Williamston finds itself have already resulted in the reduction of the Town’s staff by sixteen employees. Now that crisis threatens to claim still more victims, this time a group of longtime residents who have rented lots on which their mobile homes sit; lots slated for auction at the end of the month as part of the Town’s efforts to raise money to pay its tax bills.

Many of the residents threatened with displacement are elderly; many are seriously ill or on disability. Most are on fixed incomes. Of the four residents interviewed for this article, all had lived at their current addresses for at least ten years. They own their homes and pay rent for the lots in the trailer park, most of which lies at the corner of Ragsdale and Parker Streets. Three other lots lie along C Street several hundred yards away.

Last fall, former property owner Mary McPhail informed the residents that she could no longer accept their lot payments, because she had donated the properties to the Town of Williamston.

Residents say they went to the Town, seeking to pay their rent, but were turned away. “The Mayor said the Town wasn’t in the landlord business, so they told us to keep the rent,” said Marie Wood, who began her 24 year stay on Parker Street in a single wide trailer, later bringing in the double wide home she and her son now occupy.

Wood has three stints in her heart, and six rods and pins, and two cages in her lower back. She lives solely on her disability, and weeps at the idea of having to move or surrender her home. “I just don’t have the money to buy the lot. I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m going to do,” said Wood, who worked at the Mohawk mill in Belton for thirty years.

Milton Johnny Ferguson is seriously ill with cancer; it has disfigured his face and engulfed his left ear. He has lived on Ragsdale Street for 17 years; his son Ezra, who recently underwent double hernia surgery, shares the home with his father. Both are on disability; both want badly to remain where they are. “Where are we going to go?”, asked Ezra. “This is a 1971 model trailer. We can’t pull it any place. Besides, we love it here. It’s peace and quiet and we all look out for each other, like neighbors are supposed to do.”

Milton says he tried several times to speak with Mayor Phillip Clardy, but was unable to do so. “They always said he wasn’t in and they didn’t know when he would be in. We also talked to Councilman Otis Scott who said the Council would meet with us, but they never did. Now, we’re about to be thrown into the street. It’s not right.”

Gloria Caldwell, whose husband William suffers from dementia and has inoperable colon cancer, supports Ferguson’s claims that the Mayor was inaccessible. She also said that Scott had been contacted and had promised a meeting with the Council and Mayor. “But it never happened. Now, we’re faced with this. We live on our Social Security and a tiny VA check my husband receives. It will be very hard for us to buy our lot, but we have no guarantee that we will be allowed to stay here if someone else buys it.”

Larry Chapman has been serving as spokesman and activist for his neighbors. “These folks don’t have many choices. They are in a bad way with this suddenly coming up like it has. It just seems that the Council and Mayor have no heart. They should have gotten these details worked out before taking over the property. If they didn’t want to be landlords, why did they accept the land? They knew we lived here.”

To make things even more difficult, they all received letters from the auctioneer which seemed  to indicate they would have to provide a $3500 deposit in order to place a bid on their properties.

At Wednesdays budget workshop Hugh Durham clarified that the deposit referred to any successful bids made, with the balance to be paid within 30 days.

The residents had  hoped to attend this coming Monday’s Council meeting and plead their case. That chance has probably been lost, since Council won’t meet again until  March 27, when they will hold a public hearing on the proposed budget, just three days before the land sale on the 30th.

“If they took the old jail and the Gossett Street property off the auction list, why can’t they do the same for us, and give us time to try and work something out. It’s not our fault they got the town in trouble,” said Chapman. “They don’t seem to have any common sense about them. I’ve known David Harvell and Otis Scott almost my whole life. I thought sure they’d speak up for us, but they haven’t.”

Mayor Clardy, when contacted for comment, said, “The Town is in no position to be a landlord. We need to sell those properties, either individually or as a parcel. We simply aren’t in position to collect rents. We had considerable discussion with our attorney to determine our position before accepting the donation of the land.”

Councilman Scott said he understood the people’s position, but added, “I didn’t put them in that predicament. Neither did the Town. The lady who donated the land caused the trouble. I know they’re in a heck of a fix, and I hate it for them, but we’ve got to sell the land or the IRS is going to come down on us. But I’ll go along with whatever the rest of Council wants to do.”

2006 budget work continues at Williamston work session

By Stan Welch

Wed. March 8 - Budget discussion were the bulk of discussions at the March 8 meeting of Williamston Town Council as the ninth draft of the budget was presented. Further changes and refinements promise to be almost continuous, as the Council reacts and adapts to the Town’s changing financial situation, officials said.

In addition to items reported  in the March 8 edition of The Journal, the following items were discussed:

Chief among the changes was the decision by Council to begin funding a water and sewer reserve fund, even at the paltry level of $5000. Joe Newton, ACOG director of government operations, who strongly encouraged the decision, said,  “It is really important that you begin to build a contingency fund in case something unexpected happens. Otherwise, you have no protection at all, and as you know, equipment at the sewer plant can be very expensive.”

Funding the reserve fund will reduce the amount that the recently implemented sanitation fee of $14 per month can contribute to the general fund, but Newton insists that foresight is vital.

The projected costs for the services provided by the Town’s engineering consultants, Goldie & Associates, continue to climb. Tentatively budgeted at $36,000, that figure jumped to $76,000 during the latest work session. Twenty six thousand dollars of that increase resulted from the transfer of $26,000 from the line item set aside for lab fees, reducing that number from $32,000 to $6000.

Still, an additional $14,000 was budgeted in anticipation of increased costs. Some of those costs will be associated with a feasibility study the Council approved. That study is to determine the feasibility of any and all options the Town may have for the treatment of the wastewater, and to establish the status of the Town’s facilities. The Town is expected to express their intentions concerning their wastewater treatment plan by June 1.

Improved accountability continues to be a goal as the budget drafts are being reworked. For instance, a $60,000 line item titled Supplies/expense- -police was broken down into three separate items: office supplies, $30,000; jail/dispatch, $15,000; and police, $ 15,000. Additionally, two line items were established under the heading of municipal court that will include judges salaries and court expenses. The line items will allow expenses to be tracked more accurately.

In a similar adjustment, administration expenses were broken down into three line items, to more carefully account for expenditures.

The issue of tree limb disposal continues to occupy the Council. A one time line item for storm cleanup was funded at $5000. Newton reminded the Council, “Now you have to find $5000 somewhere.” David ‘Doc’ Roberts, Street and Sanitation Department Head, has been trying to address the large amount of debris left behind by the ice storm earlier this winter, despite having his department cut to four employees. The crew is attempting to pick up limbs on Friday. “The job is huge,” said Roberts. The Mayor repeated his desire to help the residents with the problem, and asked for their patience.

The Council also appointed David Ford to the Town Election Commission, in preparation for the upcoming special election to replace former Councilman Cecil Cothran, who resigned recently.

Newton also presented the Council with a proposed resolution which would simplify and clarify the way in which the Council conducts its business. Newton pointed out that the Town has long established ordinances and regulations, but added that frequent changes and alterations have led to confusion. “This resolution is intended to facilitate the governmental process, not to complicate it. Study these proposals and decide if you want to adopt them. If you do, we’ll operate under them for awhile and see if we’re comfortable with them. If you are, they’ll eventually need to be passed as an ordinance.”

West Pelzer looking at joint sewer options

By Stan Welch

The West Pelzer Town Council continues to search for a workable solution to its wastewater problems. At Monday’s meeting, Sonya Harrison, an engineer for Goldie & Associates, made a pitch to the Council asking them to fund their share of a feasibility study that could allow the town, along with Pelzer and Williamston, to also share a solution.

All three towns face serious issues concerning wastewater treatment. Both Williamston and West Pelzer are currently under consent orders imposed by DHEC which effectively throttle any foreseeable future growth. Harrison stated that three options seem most likely. One is for the towns to send their wastewater to an upgraded Western Carolina treatment plant in Greenville County. The main downfall there is that sewer bills could easily triple for area residents.

“The cost for Williamston to purchase the one million gallons per day (gpd) they need would be $8 per gallon, or $8 million. That is up from $5 million a few years ago. That is very expensive,” said Harrison.

Another alternative is a proposed sewer line running from Pelzer and West Pelzer through Williamston and Belton to Honea Path and on to Ware Shoals, which has ample capacity. The 23.5 mile line would cost approximately $30 million, and would regionalize the area’s sewer systems. Ware Shoals is seeking additional customers to lower the costs of treating its wastewater. The plant in question has approximately ten times the capacity being used.

Harrison says there are concerns, however. “We have toured the ware shoals plant and it is nearly twenty years old. We’re concerned about the need for upgrades in the future, and the possible costs.” Harrison has said in the past that Belton, which Goldie & Associates also works with, and which has adequate capacity at this time, is not interested in that option.

The third option would be for Williamston to upgrade its existing lagoons, and for the other towns to send their wastewater to those lagoons. “That is the cheapest option. The study would investigate the possibility of combining all three systems. DHEC has made it clear that nothing which would delay the June 1 deadline for submitting plans would be considered, except for plans to move towards the Western Carolina plant.”

West Pelzer also faces a June deadline for declaring their intentions. The town signed a contract with Western Carolina in 1993, agreeing to be a customer. But projected costs in recent months have raised concerns on the Council. Mayor Paxton reported that Western Carolina representative Ray Orvin had indicated that the utility would release the Town from the agreement. She added, “He made it clear that he thought we would come back to them asking for their help, and that we would have to pay much more then.” Councilman Davis asked for written assurances that the contract could be voided.

Harrison stated that the estimated cost if Western Carolina was used would be approximately $4 per thousand gallons, billed to the customer. “Using the Williamston plant, that cost would be between $2-3 per thousand gallons.” She stressed that Williamston would have to upgrade regardless. “They approved their share of the funding for the feasibility study last week. Pelzer is discussing it tonight.”

Council unanimously approved spending $2917 for their share of the study. The study will take 4-6 weeks, but Harrison hoped it would be ready by the next Council meeting. “All three towns are on very tight schedules, and we realize that.”

Council also voted to purchase a printer that is compatible with its new billing software. The bid accepted was $699.98 with an additional $54.95 for an extended two year warranty.

Council decided to delay a possible purchase of a used dump truck until money promised by FEMA for ice storm cleanup arrives. “I’m not one of those guys who goes for the old ‘the check’s in the mail’” story,” said Councilman Davis.

Council also approved spending $500 to construct a blower for the sewer plant from parts of two blowers that the Town has. Mayor Paxton recused herself, since her brother in law Jonathan Paxton will perform the work. Another company had bid $3500 to do the job, while a new blower would cost approximately $5000.

Mayor Paxton also announced that Councilwoman Maida Kelly had been appointed to the Anderson County Human Relations Council.West 

Free baby baskets now available to new moms

Free baby baskets are ready for delivery to any parents with a baby under 24 months old or with toddlers ages 3 and 4 years. The baby baskets are a welcome gift from the Towns of Pelzer, West Pelzer and Williamston and Strong Communities. Volunteers purchase materials and create the beautiful baskets with items such as baby wipes, sippy cups, bowls, spoons, books, bibs, babysitter notepads, washcloths, blankets, teething toys, and more.

The baskets are delivered by Williamston and West Pelzer police officers and town employees in Pelzer. Chief David Baker, Mayor Phillip Clardy, Chief Bernard Wilson, Mayor Peggy Paxton, Pelzer Town Manager Skip Watkins and Mayor Kenneth Davis, are taking the lead as part of this outreach to support parents of young children.

If you know of a family with a young baby who lives in these towns, please contact any of the following numbers:

Pelzer Town Office at 947-6231; West Pelzer Town Office at 947-6297; Mayor Peggy Paxton at home 947-2807; Williamston Town Office at 847-7473; Williamston Police Department at 847-7425;  West Pelzer Police Department at 947-8247.

More volunteers are needed to prepare baby baskets and to act as “Family Friends” for new moms by calling the mom once a week. To find out more, call Doris Cole, Strong Communities Outreach Worker at home at 847-9186.

State budget passes full committee

Last week the House Ways and Means Committee, Chaired by Representative Dan Cooper, successfully passed the budget out of full committee. The budget is comprised of three bills: an appropriation bill, a supplemental bill, and a capital reserve fund bill.

The Ways and Means Committee completely restores all true trust funds and sets aside $116 million for property tax relief, leaving over $200 million not spent. The committee also required a study of all trust and reserve funds to stop agencies from hiding money in generically named “trust” accounts.  “I am very pleased of all the hard work the members of the Ways and Means Committee have done these past few months. Chairman Cooper and the committee have overcome recent speed-bumps and have given the House a budget that provides conservative spending caps, but allows the General Assembly the opportunity to vote up or down on other important budget items,” Speaker of the House Bobby Harrell said about the budget.

Chairman Cooper said, “The appropriation bill has a 4.8% cap on spending which reflects an actual measure of the growth in population and inflation. The supplemental bill will include such important items as gas for school buses, nursing home beds and trauma center funding.  We expect a vigorous debate on the House floor as members decide what will be in this year’s state budget. The men and women of the Ways and Means Committee have worked long hours and listened to their constituents. I am proud of the work they’ve done.” The budget should be on the House floor for debate the last week of March.

Seems to Me . .
Where is the compassion?

By Stan Welch

There has been much pain and anguish as a result of Williamston’s financial folly. Services previously provided by the town have been slashed. Yard waste and storm debris goes uncollected. Fewer police are on patrol. Sixteen people lost their jobs; sixteen families’ lives were changed. As bad as that sounds, as bad as it is, it may be about to get worse.

The Town is scheduled to auction approximately 40 pieces of property at the end of the month, in order to pay their tax bill. There’s a related story elsewhere in this issue of The Journal. I won’t rehash all the details, but briefly, a local landowner recently donated several lots on Ragsdale and Parker Streets to the Town. Nothing wrong with that, except that the Town accepted the lots knowing full well that they were occupied by people who rent those lots for  their mobile homes.

Those people are now in a bad fix, and the Mayor and Council seem, if not unconcerned, at least resigned to those folks’ fate. Those folks, however, are not so resigned to their fate. They are upset and feel as if they have been kicked to the curb. It is hard to fault them for their feelings. They were notified by the local landowner, Mary McPhail, in December that she could no longer accept their lot rent payments, since she had donated the land to the Town.

These folks, many of whom are disabled, or elderly, seem to be honest decent folks, who straightaway took their rent payments to the Town Hall. They wanted nothing but to continue to live where most of them have lived for ten years or more. But their efforts to pay their rent were rebuffed. The Mayor and town officials told them to keep their money, that the Town was in no position to act as landlord.

Now, three months later, the Town is cast in the role of villain, of a landlord casting the sick and elderly out into the street. The need to sell the Town’s property is clear and compelling. The Town must have money to satisfy its tax bills, lest the government step in and ruin all the efforts to pull the Town out of the hole it’s in. That is a result that no one wants to see.

But the issue isn’t quite that simple. As one of the residents of Ragsdale Street said to me, “It’s not our fault that the Town is in the mess it’s in. We didn’t have anything to do with that.” But that mess is about to have something to do with them, and it’s a shame.

One of the most shameful aspects of this situation is the fact that the Mayor and Council never even met with these folks to hear their concerns. Several of the residents said that they contacted Council members Cole and Scott and were told that they would arrange a meeting. The residents also said that repeated efforts to talk with the Mayor were unsuccessful.

Let’s think about this for a minute. These people are about to be displaced, forced to either move their homes to another location, or lose their homes altogether. Some of the homes are too old to be relocated. For many of the residents, any significant increase in lot rents would prove to be a hardship in itself.

The Council has proved it is able and willing to remove specific properties from the auction list. It quickly did so when the old jail building and the Gossett Street recreation center stirred controversy by being placed on the list. Both those properties were removed for far less compelling reasons than to avoid the displacement of more than a dozen citizens of the Town.

At almost every meeting of the council in recent weeks, whether  a regular Council meeting or one of the special budget meetings, the Council has given considerable time and energy to finding a solution to the storm debris crisis. They’ve even considered trying to lift the Town’s ban on burning in order to let the town folk take care of their own problem.

Surely, the Mayor and Council could commit to spending a few minutes with these citizens to hear their concerns. It seems to me that the least Council could do is meet with these folks, and perhaps, just perhaps, try to work out some sort of solution. Truth be told, they owe it to those folks, just as surely as they owe it to the Town to get it out of the mess they got it into.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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