Wednesday, July 30, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

I had planned to explain what is going on relative to the uproar over the Jasper school system. This is a very serious matter, and I will not have all the facts until at least next week. Please bear with me, as this is something that needs the cleansing power of sunshine before it will get better. When you have the full story, I’m confident you will be as angry and disappointed as I am.

On a happier, local note, the new iteration of Josh Cook’s Corner Perk is off to a great start with a classy ribbon cutting and an opening day full house. Josh is a good friend of mine, and we had been anticipating this day for far too long. When local contractor Randy West took over, the project really started to perk. It has all the comfortable intimacy of the old place with more space, a more convenient location, and most importantly, the same old Josh.

The Corner Perk is just one of a great many new or relocated businesses finding their way to Old Town Bluffton, many also finding good space in the Promenade. In truth, we have had so many ribbon cuttings that the big scissors have had to be sharpened several times.

I am happy to be able to report that around the state, there is a surge of new business. We are seeing the evidence in our quarterly tax collections. The Great Recession is in the rear-view mirror with business confidence soaring. At the risk of seeming to brag about our little part of the Lowcountry, Old Town Bluffton and the rest of District 118 are leading the parade. While those of us in real estate took some hits in the last few years, new businesses in our area actual increased by a big number.

There are a number of reasons why we are seeing such a flowering of the entrepreneurial spirit in our area. It might have something to do with the fact that houses and businesses in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and the Northeast have started to change hands again. Folks who were biding their time until things loosened up are now arriving in our neighborhoods, with good ideas for active retirement, as well as some thoughts on what phase two, or three or four will look like in their business lives. To them, I say “welcome,” the party is just getting started.

To those of us who study these things, one of the important features of our success over the years is the fact that our local water quality is still holding up pretty well. It’s almost a cliché that half of Beaufort County is under water at high tide. The recreational and soul-healing aspects of clean water cannot be overestimated.

Fortunately, there is a productive partnership between the Town of Bluffton, Beaufort County, and your legislative delegation, that has long recognized the paramount importance of water quality in our state and in our region. I continue to work with incoming Bluffton Town Manager Marc Orlando, along with our dedicated partners at Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) to insure that our yearly water quality allocation for the May River is producing the absolute highest bang for the buck from these scarce dollars. Marc, along with Town of Bluffton Water Quality maven, Kim Jones, and your representative, are working overtime to see that Town Councilman Larry and Tina Toomer’s oyster leases are open and productive, as well as on a trajectory to allow full harvesting as we go through the seasons. A pristine May River and our Town of Bluffton are just a natural fit.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

There is a lot happening in Bluffton these days. We have a fabulous new neighbor in the Promenade, as well as some well-planned changes at the Bluffton Town Hall.

My good friend, Bluffton Town Manager Anthony Barrett, is retiring. After more than five years of leading the administrative part of the town government, Anthony and his lovely wife, Angelica, are embarking on the next phase of their loving partnership. Leaving the town in great shape, with a newly awarded AA plus bond rating, the Barretts will be greatly missed. He was a true friend to me and to Bluffton. His knowledge, wisdom and experience were key factors in the great strides made in our not-so-little town. I know many of you will want to go by town hall and express your gratitude to this excellent public servant.

The sadness of losing Anthony Barrett is somewhat tempered by the fact that his job will be assumed by another good friend, current Assistant Town Manager Marc Orlando. Marc joined the town staff over ten years ago, and has had success in each of the positions he has held. From planner to administrator to economic development official, Marc has brought competence and class to each day of his tenure. I have every confidence that his past accomplishments are a mere introduction to what we can expect from this talented leader and public servant.

In fact, a couple of years ago, we took a look at all the planners and visionaries who have contributed to taking Bluffton from what it was, to what it is becoming. We looked for folks who had made a real difference in preserving the very best of “the old days” while opening the door for a new era of economic prosperity, historic preservation, conservation of our natural resources, and the fostering of the very best part of our Bluffton culture. Marc Orlando was deemed to embody all the visionary qualities, as well as the skills and the passion to translate great ideas to a great community.

In recognition of all these factors, a Resolution of the South Carolina House of Representatives was passed, citing Marc’s leadership in helping to define and refine what we as a community should be about. It’s on the wall of the statehouse for the duration.

Our new neighbor in the Promenade is the Lost Art Building. It is at the beginning of State of Mind Street, which is appropriate. This gorgeous old brick structure is a striking piece of functional architecture. Housing sumptuous residential upstairs and an intimate, high quality restaurant on the ground floor, it is a rare gem. Margie and Jimmy have created a building we can be proud of. The level of fit and finish is just superb. I am confident that both the residential and the restaurant will raise the standard for Old Town and beyond.

Years ago, when we were holding meeting after meeting for community input on the Promenade, we pretty much all agreed that towns rarely stay the same. They either go up or go down. The Lost Art Building is a leading indicator, in my view, of where we are heading.

Next time, I will have some comments on the ACLU suit in Jasper County, what it means, who is responsible, and why this level of political machination is profoundly hurtful to the good folks of this county. Schools are our best mechanism of social mobility, but for generations, the good people of Jasper County have been denied the benefits of good public schools. It must stop.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

I really appreciate all the calls and emails about the last few columns. I know there can be a little confusion with what the House passes, especially early in the session, and what ultimately becomes law. Each year, after the session is over, before we really start getting ready for next year, I try to give you a rundown of what was accomplished, why it was configured the way it was, and what it means for our neighborhood.

Today, I’d like to talk a little about the service you get from the state. Whether you are a restaurant that gets inspected periodically, a taxpayer who might have a complex tax situation, or any other citizen dealing with the state bureaucracy. If you get bad or indifferent service, I need to hear about it. Conversely, if your experience is good and your service is outstanding, I want to hear the details of that as well.

It might interest you to know that I originally ran for the statehouse at the urging of my wife, Mary. We had various businesses and the state was just eating our lunch with paperwork, much of it either silly or redundant. Mary is a successful businessperson in her own right. She observed that the only way we were going to get away from this paper chase was to have more of a business-friendly representative in the statehouse. That was over a dozen years ago, and I believe we have done good work in eliminating superfluous regulation, as well as the reams of questionable paperwork.

I’ll give you an example of how this used to work. Around 2008, I began getting calls from my friends in Sun City with issues concerning Department of Health and Human Services (SCDHHS). There was a couple in Beaufort having trouble with adoptive issues. As the complaints began to mount, not only here, but in other areas, I requested that the Legislative Audit Council take a look. This was a step I took reluctantly, as I knew a number of local DHHS workers, and they were all spoken of very highly by supervisors and clients. As it turned out, the problem was in Columbia with a very few managers.

The audit was done and recommendations made. This was usually the end of the story. This legislator and several others asked for a follow-up several months later. Most, but not all, of the recommendations had been implemented. The problems were less, but not eliminated. In short order, they were all eliminated. If you are interested in seeing for yourself, I have the documents in the office, and like the budget, you can check them out and return them the next day.

While we still have a few problems with DHHS, the new leadership at DHEC has done a superb job of making certain that complaints are reviewed and acted on immediately. We can thank Catherine Templeton for the renewed focus on customer service. My go-to guy at DHEC is the Director of Legislative and Constituent Services, Jonathon Yarborough. Jonathon is a smart man with a tremendous resume, who knows where the levers are to make things happen. Since he took his undergraduate degree at Clemson and his law degree at USC, he is a popular fellow.

By far my favorite state employee for a long time was a restaurant inspector, now retired and living at Alljoy, named Audress Hill. When we owned Shuckers, she was our health inspector. She knew that her job was to protect the public health, and not necessarily to just serve the paperwork. We remember her with fondness and respect.

The takeaway here is: If you have problems with services performed by the state, call me. If you received excellent service and want to comment on your state employee’s good work, call me. We all need to hear both.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

It was good to see the crowds at the various 4th of July celebrations we were fortunate enough to attend. Our part of the Lowcountry must be among the most patriotic areas of the country. With our large population of military retirees, as well as the fact that our population trends a little older and a little more conservative, it is not really that surprising. For whatever reason, it truly makes me proud to be an American, and able to express my patriotism with my equally patriotic neighbors and constituents.

Speaking of our neighbors in the Lowcountry, we have had quite a few meetings recently with our Jasper County friends. As many of you know, I am the chairman of the Jasper County delegation, at least until the end of the year. The other members are Rep. Weston Newton, Rep. Bill Bowers, Sen. Tom Davis, and Sen. Clem Pinckney. For a variety of good and not-so-good reasons, our Jasper delegation meetings are always packed beyond capacity with folks wishing to speak on a variety of issues, some under the control of the delegation, and some outside our strict jurisdiction but heard nonetheless. A part of good governance is simply to provide a venue for folks to say what they need to say.

The recent past has seen a lot of change in Jasper, some for the good, and some simply a different version of the same old thing. There have always been a group of citizens in this area who want to do the right thing, regardless of the institutional pushback. Our delegation meetings have become the place where people feel they can have their say. The school system is often the source of the most passionate disappointment. There is no lack of understanding that education is the key to lifting those from generations of poverty up to join the new prosperity in our part of South Carolina. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of institutional inertia that needs to be overcome for things to move forward.

The ACLU has filed a lawsuit, hoping to realign the school districts to more equitably represent the will of the folks, as they choose new school board members. While I have often looked askance at the ACLU on some of their projects, this is something that needed to happen years ago as the population shifts in the county began to occur. I will keep you posted on the progress.

There is, however, a solid piece of good news on this matter, having to do with the presumptive replacement for Rep. Patrick in District 123. Jeff Bradley is a financial advisor and all around good guy who has stepped forward to assume this important seat as Rep. Andy Patrick has indicated he will resign after his current term. One of the several ways that Jeff has distinguished himself in recent years is as a coordinator of a series of GED camps.
What this means is that young people who, for whatever reason, have left high school without a diploma, can attend a camp with volunteer mentor/councilors who will encourage and tutor the individual to take and pass the General Education Development (GED) test, to be awarded high school equivalency status. The final step in the program is an interview with either the folks at University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB) or Technical College of the Lowcountry (TCL). They are encouraged to think seriously about what kind of career or job they wish to pursue, and how these excellent facilities may fit into those plans. This program is being introduced in Jasper after a number of successful camps in Beaufort County. I believe this program is a game-changer.

While we work on the future, Jeff has come up with a way to heal parts of the past.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

From the House

Bluffton Today

Last Thursday, Rep. Weston Newton and I, along with Sen. Tom Davis, had a great outing with the Sun City Republican Club. As usual, club leader Jim Lee and his wife made us feel welcome. So welcome, in fact, that the socializing almost overtook our brief remarks. I have a long history with these good folks, but it still kind of amazes me that this Sun City community is home to so many well-informed and active residents. It was no surprise that Tom, Weston and I left the event having learned a lot more than we were able to impart. Good friends, lively conversation, and strong conservative support—what’s not to like about that?

The meeting was a time for a little policy discussion, just a modest amount of anticipation of what’s coming next session, combined with a recitation of a few of the “wins” scored by your Beaufort/Jasper delegation during the recent session. With this legislator on House Ways and Means Committee and chairman of Ways and Means Provisos subcommittee, and Sen. Davis on Senate Finance Committee, many of our wins were measured in tax dollars repatriated back to our neighborhoods.

In the immediate Sun City neighborhood, the Technical College of the Lowcountry (TCL) got a nice bump in appropriation dollars. This is part of our long-time emphasis on preparing the next generation of highly skilled workers for the good jobs flowing to South Carolina. A couple of TCL board members were in the audience, beaming approval.

Once again, the hard work of your delegation, combined with the persistent efforts of Chancellor Jane Upshaw and Vice-Chancellor Lynn McGee, moved the University of South Carolina Beaufort (USCB) a couple of notches closer to fiscal parity with comparable members of our university system. I consider this a win as well. The reason we are not up to full parity after so much concerted effort has nothing to do with merit or productivity, and very much to do with some inside baseball machinations that don’t cast an entirely positive light on our statehouse process. If you ask, I’ll share it in private, but it’s not for publication (just yet).

After being disappointed last year and vetoed this year, the Waddell Mariculture Center in Greater Bluffton finally got the renovation dollars necessary to bring this world-class marine research station up to code. With millions of gallons of salt water flowing through the pumps and valves of this extremely productive installation, it is almost miraculous they have been able to keep the physical plant going, and still do their day-to-day mission for as long as they have. Al Stokes and his crew have done a great deal with not very much for many years.

While I was mystified by the veto of these crucial funds, we were all heartened by the statewide support for the overturning of this particularly imprudent veto. Fishermen will put up with a lot of foolishness, but there is a limit. House and Senate members around the state got full inboxes for the week between the veto and the slam-dunk override.

Finally, the birthday celebration of our nation is in a couple of days. There will be fireworks and cookouts, along with more than a few patriotic celebrations, some of which may involve adult beverages. Please don’t drink and drive. I can’t be any plainer than that. Sheriff Tanner and Bluffton Chief Reynolds will have all their folks on the roads looking to keep us safe from ourselves and from each other. At the very least, a DUI is expensive and embarrassing.

Have a happy 4th of July, but please be safe.