S.C. Attorney General’s Office Dragged into Farmers Market Controversy

March 27, 2013

Investigative Reports

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South Carolina State Farmers MarketThe S.C. House took an unusual step during recent debate on next fiscal year’s state budget, allocating $3 million to the state Attorney General’s Office to oversee a proposed land deal at the State Farmers Market involving the Ports Authority chairman.

Normally, any appropriations involving the market on Charleston Highway near Interstate 26 in Lexington County would go through the S.C. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the market.

“This was not part of our budget request,” Mark Powell, spokesman for Attorney General Alan Wilson, said when contacted initially by The Nerve last week.

The Nerve last year first reported that the S.C. Senate slipped in an additional $16.3 million in its version of this fiscal year’s state budget for an unspecified expansion project at the market. The Nerve later detailed state Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers’ plan to spend millions in tax dollars to buy market property owned by Ports Authority Chairman Bill Stern.

Weathers did not make public Stern’s connection to the market until after The Nerve’s initial story. The proposed $16.3 million appropriation was later dropped.

No one is accusing Stern or Weathers of doing anything illegal, though a group of lawmakers led by Rep. Ralph Norman, R-York, in August requested that the state Legislative Audit Council, the General Assembly’s investigative arm, conduct a second audit of the Agriculture Department in connection with the relocation of the market from its former site on Bluff Road in Richland County to its present location.

The second audit has not yet been released publicly, Norman told The Nerve Tuesday evening.

In the latest twist in the controversy, Rep. Gary Simrill, R-York and chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees the Agriculture Department, authored an amendment to H. 3711, a general resolution that would fund various projects next fiscal year, which starts July 1, from the state Capital Reserve Fund. Simrill’s amendment would allocate $3 million to the Attorney General’s Office for the Farmers Market instead of through the Agriculture Department, where the proposed appropriation was listed originally.

Under Simrill’s proposal, the attorney general could “negotiate for the purchase of property at the State Farmers Market on behalf of the State Department of Agriculture subject to approval of the (S.C.) Budget and Control Board.”

The bill also would specifically allow the attorney general to “prioritize the acquisition of lot twenty-five,” which, according to records, is owned by Stern. Records show that the lot is about 10 acres and includes a large wholesale-vendor building. The attorney general also would have the authority to renegotiate existing development agreements at the market.

“It would need to work to our advantage as anticipated,” Simrill told The Nerve Monday of a renegotiated development agreement.

Simrill, who  was among six York County-area lawmakers who requested the second Farmers Market audit, said he designed his amendment to get  the market out of the red, which is more than $300,000 a year, according to information the Agriculture Department provided the subcommittee.

However, $3 million might not be enough to buy Lot 25 owned by Stern, which has been appraised at more than $6 million, records show.

“I didn’t get into who owned it,” Simrill told The Nerve. “For me, that wasn’t an issue.”

Stern owns four parcels at the market that Weathers has proposed purchasing on behalf of the Agriculture Department, though Simrill likely would slow the process down if his plan survives the Senate and a review by Gov. Nikki Haley.

Simrill said to make the Farmers Market more profitable, he would focus on the Stern-owned property where the wholesale-vendor building and sheds with in-state and out-of-state vendors are located, instead of on Stern’s other parcels, which include the front gate and the Corbett Building, which houses a restaurant, among other things.

“Control all of the sheds and lift the restrictions,” Simrill said of his plan.

Simrill said a proposed development agreement has a limitation in that only South Carolina produce could be sold in one of the sheds that Stern owns, contending that the market’s ability to make money is hindered when state produce is out of season.

The wholesale-vendor building on Lot 25 has 31,090 square feet and four tenants, record show. Those tenants collectively make an estimated $248,833 annually in income, according to the latest appraisal. The two produce sheds, which total nearly 39,000 square feet and collectively contain 88 bays, generate an estimated total of $484,585 yearly, the appraisal shows.

“I want to help Commissioner Weathers. I don’t want him running a deficit,” said Simrill, who described his amendment as a “measure to have another set of eyes on any future property purchase.”

“In this case, adding a level of bureaucracy was a good thing,” he said.

Simrill said Weathers likely won’t get his budget request of $14.4 million to purchase the market property in question. Contacted by The Nerve, Kelly Coakley, a spokeswoman for Weathers, said in an emailed response that her agency is “focused on the task at hand.”

“If accomplishing that includes working with fellow state agencies, like the Attorney General’s Office, and that means legal assistance, then that is what we’ll do – whatever it takes to get it done,” Coakley said.

Stern did not respond to The Nerve for a request for comment.

Simrill said he has spoken to Haley, and that they share the goal of making the Farmers Market a self-sustaining operation. Haley spokesman Rob Godfrey did not respond to an email from The NerveTuesday seeking comment.

Norman, a developer, has questioned the two appraisals of Stern’s market property, sending a letter to House members on Feb. 12 expressing his concerns. During this month’s budget debate on the House floor, he proposed using the $3 million Capital Reserve Fund appropriation for the Farmers Market to buy school buses instead.

“There was smoke with the Farmers Market long before I got here,” he told House members during debate on March 12.

“The AG, I think, has a lot better things to do than look at this,” Norman said of Simrill’s plan.

In a follow-up written response to The Nerve, Powell, spokesman for Wilson, said the S.C. attorney general is the state’s “chief prosecutor, chief legal officer, and chief securities officer,” and is “prohibited by the state constitution from handling the appropriations process.”

The state budget bill (H. 3710) and Capital Reserve Fund resolution are now in the Senate. Any differences between the Senate and House versions would have to be resolved by a conference committee made up of members of both chambers before any final legislation is sent to Haley for her review.

Olson can be reached at (803) 254-4411 or curt@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_curt and @olson_curt. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and on Twitter @thenervesc.