PICKENS COUNTY - Council has been accused of being reckless spenders of taxpayer dollars, said Council Chairman G. Neil Smith in an exclusive interview with The Easley Progress and The Pickens Sentinel.
But things have changed and council is more aggressive at obtaining outside money to help fund local projects - saving those local dollars, he said.
One example is improving the location of the Department of Social Services building, he said.
"We were required by state law to provide office space for them - well, it was news to us that we had half of the money," Smith said. "They wrote us a check and said 'OK, this will prove that we want it. Here's half of the building, and will you build it and let us pay it off for the remaining 10 years?'
"That's a no-brainer. And the same thing with the hangars," Smith said.
"Those were projects that I will stand out in front of the public and say 'This makes sense, these are good business decisions,'" he said.
The following is excerpted from the interview:
Q- What's the biggest criticism of council that you feel has been quelled in recent years?
"Spending money recklessly."
Q- Was that an accurate criticism?
Q- Can you give an example?
"I can give one - and I'm a supporter of the library - but looking at the size of the library building. If their long-term plan was to set up a branch in Six Mile and Dacusville, to have a branch system, then I would say they weren't doing a very good job of planning because the left wing is the Six Mile branch and the right wing is the Dacusville branch. They put too much in the size of that building.
"Now, that's where long-term vision comes back to position. Again, I'm not opposed to doing the library, because you'll see it was under my leadership that we built the Pickens and the Liberty and the Clemson (branches.) Those were the three and we were coming back to this one (in Easley.)
"We got a little heavy on the spending. It's a nice building, but it doesn't fit the long-term vision that I think we had. I think now you've got to change the vision to fit the building. You've got two wings that aren't necessarily being used and how are you going to use those?
"The problem in all that is, the use of the library is changing. And so you need to be lean and mean when you start trying to figure out 'how does your service change with what the people are requiring?'"
Q- Have you been able to turn that accusation around?
"Yes. And here's the thing: We just had a first planning meeting where we asked the staff to come and tell us the big projects for the next 10 years. And there's been quite a lot of press on the various projects.
"But at the same time, we found out that the DSS building - which we were required by state law to provide office space for them - well, it was news to us that we had half of the money. They wrote us a check and said 'OK, this will prove that we want it. Here's half of the building, and will you build it and let us pay it off for the remaining 10 years?' That's a no-brainer. And the same thing with the hangars.
"Those were projects that I will stand out in front of the public and say 'This makes sense, these are good business decisions.' We didn't necessarily have to build the DSS building this year. But we could be forced in a year when the budget was not so good and those monies would not be available.
"The name of the game today is trying to figure out 'Where is the source of funds?' and 'How do you apply for them?' You can call it pork, you can call it grants, you can call it anything.
"I'm not in favor of pork, but if it's being served and my family members are at the table, I'm going to be there and I'm going to be getting my share. If the family decides we're not going to serve pork, then I'll say 'OK.'
"But if it's going to be served, I'm going to be effective as any council member in getting our share. First of all, we eliminated a grants coordinator position. So the previous group decided that wasn't important.
"Prior to that, I was on council when we created that; when people were telling us there wasn't grant money. Well we generated $20 million worth of grants. Under this new administrator ... how many (times) have you heard about us getting new grants?
"So I'm saying if that's the game that you have to go and play, that's what we're going to do. The reality of it, locally, it's not meaning anything. It means that if we don't get our share, it's going to be spent somewhere else.
"So the point is, if you're going to do a project, at least use the available money that's available in the system versus having to go to the local property tax.
"Be reasonable when you're making your purchases. At least discuss things where the public can see what we're doing and understand it ... in a way, saying, 'They did a pretty good job on that.'
"That transparency is (government's) protection. If you make a decision behind closed doors, you might make a decision without one critical piece of information that could help you or prevent you from making a serious mistake.
"There are times when government pays more because they don't know how to negotiate. There are times that you can make a deal contingent on published price. We don't have to take that price, we can go to do something else. So when you're listening to the projects that we talked about, you also heard a lot of different possibilities.
"We're talking about consolidating the 911. Well, that'll probably get done if all the parties agree to it, which saves the taxpayer dollars. If we don't get over those disagreements, nothing will get done.
"Consolidation of the magistrates. That one's still being reviewed. That one's got a little harder test to see if it's going to pass the smell test and see if we want to do it.
"We haven't even gotten into the fire stations for the fire districts to see should we then be putting money into fire stations to improve the ISO ratings of the county. That means money to the taxpayer; that's savings on insurance premiums.
"I tell everybody: I spend taxpayer money the same way I spend mine, and that's carefully. And that's not just a quote. I don't make a decision on who you are, I make the decision on the issue.
"Sometimes it gets me in trouble because I don't mind just not fluffing over something. I just deal with it straight up. Sometimes it's easier not to go in but sometimes you don't have time to deal with it."
Reach Ginny Johnson at 855-0355 or email@example.com.