Before Christmas, Charleston County Council decided to give taxpayers a surprise. It gave preliminary approval to swapping a prime piece of county property on Morrison Drive for two undisclosed pieces of property, one of them to be the site of a new EMS station.
On the surface, it sounds good - good enough to win the support of a majority of County Council.
But a government isn't supposed to surprise its constituents. It is supposed to inform them and solicit their input.
In this case, that would mean letting the public know which properties are in play and their assessed value before a decision is made.
And it would mean offering other developers the opportunity to pitch their own deals to the county regarding the 7.9-acre Morrison Drive property (formerly the site of Palmetto Ford).
It was CampusWorks, a North Carolina company, that approached the county about a year ago to lease or buy the Morrison Drive property. The company is building student housing across the street and wanted to use it for parking.
County Administrator Kurt Taylor turned down the first offer, and says he did some hard bargaining along the way to arrive at the present plan, which he says would greatly benefit the county.
By it, CampusWorks would acquire the Morrison Drive property, including the building that houses the county's disabilities board and magistrate's court. In return CampusWorks would buy the county property on upper King Street and construct a building designed specifically to house magistrate's court and a new EMS station. It also would renovate a building on Savannah Highway to house the disabilities board. The specific addresses have not been revealed publicly.
Mr. Taylor says that secrecy is necessary because another developer could purchase the two properties and foul the deal.
It is unclear whether CampusWorks asked the owners for an option to purchase those properties. That would protect CampusWorks while the county opens the process to other bids.
Charleston County Council's Finance Committee on Thursday supported the deal.
But three members voted "no."
Joe Qualey was one. His concern is that the county is taking the first offer to come along without opening the process for competitive bids. It might be the best deal, he says, but how will anyone know without inviting comparisons?
Morrison Drive is booming, and more business growth is expected. There could well be other developers interested in acquiring the county's large, well-located property.
"To simply assume that it [the current deal] is the best the county can get is wrong and is contrary to competitive bidding practices," Mr. Qualey says.
In contrast, Mr. Taylor says, "Contrary to any assertion that staff bumblingly accepted the first idea to come through the door, we have spent many hours crafting a proposal which would tremendously benefit the county, which we have no other way of accomplishing."
Council members Anna Johnson and Herb Sass, a land appraiser, also voted against the plan.
Mr. Taylor says he rejected several deals posed by the developer on the way to the present swap. No question, he's worked hard on the project. But the secrecy involved in the process can only leave lingering questions. Has the competitive process operated as it should? Just who is the developer? Why might council members be inclined to give him first and possibly exclusive right to make an offer?
County Council is scheduled to make its final decision on the swap on Tuesday. Members should slow down the process long enough to ensure they are getting the best deal possible for taxpayers.
That's the very reason the standard process for public projects requires competitive bidding or seeking requests for proposals.
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