Riley to Council: Press on Over James Island

February 4, 2011

Investigative Reports

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The NerveMarc Knapp
Citizen Reporter

 

It was a great speech. Not the State of the City address, which, as usual, was scripted, long on substance and short on fire, but Charleston Mayor Joe Riley’s speech closing the debate opposing the incorporation of the town of James Island.

Riley’s discourse during the Jan. 25 Charleston City Council meeting was unscripted and long on substance, fire and passion. To give up now, the mayor said, would be “beyond ridiculous.”

A briefing on the township issue was believed to be on the agenda at the request of a council member. The S.C. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear the arguments of both the city of Charleston and the town of James Island on Feb. 2, with a decision expected a month or so thereafter.

James Island Mayor Bill Woolsey attended and in the citizen’s participation session spoke of the need for peace between the sparring municipalities. The fight could go on indefinitely, he said.

Should the town lose the case, it was likely that new legislation would be prepared in Columbia to allow a new incorporation. The city could again appeal; but, inevitably, high legal costs would be incurred by both sides.

Tim Domin, legal counsel for Charleston, gave the briefing to the city council and spoke of the previous two efforts to halt the incorporation of James Island.

Domin said he believes that the legislation creating the town was flawed and that James Island has not fulfilled the letter of the law in incorporation in its third incarnation. He said that if the city lost this case, there would be no room for an appeal.

In responding to questions from council members, Riley and Charleston Chief Financial Officer Stephen Bedard indicated that some $205,000 had been spent so far in this round of litigation.

The cost of attending the hearing in Columbia to present arguments was relatively minor at an estimated $5,000 to $6,000.

The other cost of the incorporation was a loss to the city of about $550,000 a year in local option sales tax revenues, which are usually fully applied to offsetting property tax bills.

Riley also opined that if the Supreme Court sided with the city it would be difficult for the state Legislature to re-craft legislation to allow James Island to incorporate.

In terms of population, the size of the town has diminished over the years and new legislation would have to take this into account. The legislation would likely also be opposed by many other municipalities in the state.

There is no doubt that some council members were sympathetic to Woolsey’s plea. It’s believed that some members were prepared to abandon the hearing before the Supreme Court and make peace immediately with James Island.

But nobody made such a motion and it seemed that after the debate and the mayor’s speech there might have been insufficient support.

Councilman William Dudley Gregorie signaled some sympathy for the township when he said everybody favors self-determination and wondered how the city got into the litigation issue.

Riley had no hesitation in claiming responsibility. Councilman Jimmy S. Gallant III spoke of a cry for peace and the need to respond. And Councilman Dean Riegel declared his sympathy for the township, but perhaps in response to comments from the mayor and others, thought it better to wait for the Supreme Court decision.

Councilman James Lewis Jr. was the most vocal of the council members supporting the continuation of the case – at least until after the Supreme Court decision.

What happened after that was up to the council and from all appearances, few council members, if any, seemed to want to pursue the issue further.

Riley held little back when he summed up: He spoke of the city of Charleston being the core of the area and that James Island was in the city.

The city provided so many amenities and services on James Island. He read out many: parks, recreation centers, tennis courts, etc. They were available to both the residents of the city and the town. But all were financed through city funds, not town money.

Riley said the residents of the town indeed make no contribution to facilities they enjoy, yet they have equal access to these services. He ridiculed the incorporation of James Island. If it could incorporate, why couldn’t Daniel Island or the Town of West Ashley?

Riley questioned the contiguity of the properties that make up the town, that its boundaries were inappropriate, created over creeks and marshland, and that many of the town’s properties were surrounded by those of the city.

To give up now, he said, was “beyond ridiculous,” adding it would be “awful.”