State lawmakers are requesting another formal audit of the S.C. Department of Agriculture’s handling of the relocation of the State Farmers Market – this time to include a proposal to pay a state official millions for property he owns at the new site.
The Nerve in May first reported that the S.C. Senate had slipped in an additional $16.3 million in its version of the state budget for fiscal 2013, which started July 1, for an unspecified expansion project at the Lexington County market. The proposed appropriation was later dropped.
Earlier this month,The Nerve detailed S.C. Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers’ plan to spend millions in tax dollars to buy market property owned by state Ports Authority Chairman Bill Stern. Weathers did not make public Stern’s connection to the market until after The Nerve’s initial story.
On Wednesday, Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York and a developer, provided The Nerve with a letter signed by him and five other York County-area lawmakers requesting that the state Legislative Audit Council, the investigative arm of the S.C. General Assembly, audit the Agriculture Department again in connection with the relocation of the market.
“If they’re going to get $16 million from the taxpayers, they need to explain everything and show the documents,” said Norman, who led the effort to request an audit.
The audit letter doesn’t specifically mention the proposal involving Stern’s property, though Norman said it would be covered by the request, which, among other things, seeks development plans and sales agreements.
The LAC in 2010 issued a critical audit of the relocation of the market from its former Bluff Road site in Richland County to its present Charleston Highway location in Lexington County. The report, among other things, found that the Agriculture Department spent more than $4.4 million to develop a new market site in Richland County before scrapping those plans.
Norman said a second audit is needed because the 2010 review “left more questions than answers.”
Generally under state law, it takes five lawmakers to request an LAC audit. Besides Norman, the group of lawmakers who signed a letter requesting an audit of the Agriculture Department included Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York; Rep. Deborah Long, R-Lancaster; Rep. Dennis Moss, R-Cherokee; Rep. Tommy Pope, R-York; and Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York.
Contacted Wednesday, LAC Deputy Director Andrea Truitt told The Nerve that the council likely wouldn’t consider whether to approve the request until October at the earliest, when it likely will meet next. The council has five voting members who are not lawmakers, and four legislators who do not vote.
None of the four lawmakers on the council is among the group of legislators requesting the Agriculture Department audit.
Truitt said her office is working on four unrelated audits and must do several more in the near future as required by state law, though she noted that typically, there are fewer audit requests when the Legislature is not in session.
The Nerve on Wednesday sent a copy of the audit-request letter to Weathers. In response, department spokeswoman Kelly Coakley issued the following written statement from Weathers:
“The answers to most of Rep. Norman's requests are found in the 2010 audit performed by the Legislative Audit Council. Nevertheless, in the interest of full transparency, the Department of Agriculture is prepared to provide responses to members of the General Assembly.”
Stern, who runs a private development company, called Stern & Stern and Associates, out of a Columbia-area bank building he owns, declined comment on the audit request when contacted Wednesday afternoon by The Nerve.
Stern previously told The Nerve that the proposal to buy his property was more an inquiry, not a finalized deal, and that he wouldn’t have profited even if there were a deal. He also said he bought his parcels after the market had already begun operating, and that Weathers first approached him about the potential sale of his property either late last year or early this year.
Stern has declined to say how much he paid for the approximately 28 acres he owns at the market, or how much it cost to construct several market buildings he owns. County property records reviewed by The Nerve show that Stern, through a company he owns called Stern Market Properties, LLC, in September 2010 – about the time the market began operating – bought three parcels totaling slightly less than 27 acres from another private developer for $1.57 million.
Of the Agriculture Department’s additional $16.3 million budget request for this fiscal year, more than $14 million would have been used for the “acquisition and expansion” of Stern’s property, according to agency documents provided to The Nerve under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act. An appraisal that Stern said was requested by him put the total value of four of Stern's parcels and two smaller parcels owned by another developer at $15.74 million, though Norman has disputed the accuracy of that report.
The new State Farmers Market is described as a public-private partnership, with the Department of Agriculture operating facilities for “direct sales” from South Carolina growers, and privately owned companies having their own wholesale or retail businesses, according to the department’s 2011 accountability report.
Agency documents reviewed earlier by The Nerve suggest that the state is losing money on its operations and wanted Stern’s property to help put the market in the black.
The audit-request letter asks the Legislative Audit Council to investigate the following matters:
- A Dec. 15, 2007, agreement between a private developer and Lexington County “specifying the intent to move the farmers market to Lexington County”;
- A July 1, 2008, agreement between a private developer and the Agriculture Department “outlining the duties for development” of the Lexington County market;
- A July 1, 2009, final purchase agreement for market land;
- Purchaser and seller closing statements “for any and all land purchased”;
- An itemized breakdown of the approximately $10.3 million spent of the $22.5 million authorized by the General Assembly in May 2008 for the relocation of the market;
- All change orders “executed by the parties receiving payment of any kind” for the relocation; and
- An itemized breakdown of “Total Marketing Services” in the Agriculture Department’s fiscal 2012 budget.
Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.