Swansea Residents Seek Answers on Grant Money

September 27, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The NerveIn an attempt to get a handle on how money allocated to refurbishing Swansea’s water system is being spent, a resident of the Lexington County community has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Doris Simmons filed her request last month with USDA Rural Development to see if there has been any unauthorized use of funds related to money spent on sewer and water upgrades partly funded by a federal grant.

In 2009, Swansea and USDA Rural Development signed an agreement requiring the town to put up 80 percent of the money needed for sewer and water improvements, about $2.5 million. The federal government would provide a grant worth 20 percent of the outlay, or approximately $640,000.

The funding was to go toward a host of needed improvements, including refurbishing the town’s water tank, water main extensions and upgrading structures necessary for operation of the water department, according to Rick Bryan, utility director for the Swansea Water Department.

But Simmons believes some of that money might have also been used to purchase a sport utility vehicle that Mayor Ray Spires has been seen using for personal business.

Earlier this year, Swansea residents complained that Spires was using the 2010 Ford Explorer for personal business.

Spires said back in February that he only used the vehicle for town business, but Swansea citizens said they’d seen the vehicle parked at a supermarket in nearby Pelion, where Spires worked.

Spires declined to respond to interview requests from The Nerve. Officials with USDA Rural Development in Columbia also did not return calls from The Nerve.

Spires, Simmons says, hasn’t been very forthcoming about how the money has been spent, which prompted her to send a FOIA request to the USDA.

Interestingly, after USDA Rural Development received Simmons’ request, it sent a letter to Spires asking him to review the documents requested by Simmons, to determine if any “are protected from disclosure, and would merit the withholding of information.”

Among reasons information could be withheld, according to the Sept. 3 letter, are “confidentiality,” “existence of competition” and “substantially competitive injury.”

“Also, any other issue you would like to voice will be considered,” reads the letter, signed by Lynn M. Yarborough, Freedom of Information Officer for USDA Rural Development.

Spires, according to the letter, has 15 days to notify the USDA of any objections. At that point, the agency “will make a final determination,” according to Yarborough.

“That just doesn’t make sense,” Simmons said. “It almost looks like the USDA is trying to keep something quiet.”

“This is the first time I’ve ever heard that there could be sensitive information in a water sewer grant,” added another Swansea business owner, Alberta Wasden.

Wasden and Simmons, who are both citizen reporters for The Nerve, run Swansea Tax Service. Wasden made news last month when she filed an S.C. FOIA request seeking basic town information – including financial statements, meeting minutes and ordinances – and was met with a bill from town officials for nearly $10,000.

Wasden said her request was prompted by concerns over the handling of town finances and questions about how the town was being operated.

She believes someone in the town needs to be held accountable for the fact that because Swansea officials failed to forward the state its share of fines imposed in municipal court from 2004 through 2007 – mainly for traffic violations – the community now owes $473,251 to the state.

Instead, that money paid salaries of the 10-member town staff and unspecified bills.

Spires and other town leaders have blamed the debt on bad advice, but an audit of town finances showed that Spires spent the money without authorization from the Town Council.

Wasden is still waiting for the information from the town. She said Swansea officials have asked her to narrow the scope of her inquiry but haven’t told her when they will provide the information requested even if she abides by their request.

Reach Dietrich at (803) 779-5022, ext. 110, or kevin@thenerve.org.