Boeing a last-minute council topic

Boeing Dreamliner 787

Eager elected officials statewide have acted with lightning speed to please Boeing Co., but Charleston County Council may have breached a threshold of transparency when it took up the company's economic incentive package this week.

Council members on Tuesday night -- with little public discussion -- gave the first of three required approvals for what could amount to millions of dollars of tax breaks for Boeing's 787 Dreamliner assembly plant in North Charleston.

The incentives, mostly property tax breaks, are part of an estimated $450 million package offered to the aerospace giant that could remain secret for up to a year.

The incentives proposal put before County Council and a special finance committee on Tuesday was vague. And the issue was added to the meeting agenda only the day before.

Officials added the Boeing item to a copy of the agenda posted in the lobby of the county administration building 24 hours in advance to comply with the state Freedom of Information Act.

The Post and Courier, which receives County Council meeting agendas every Friday, learned that the incentives item had been added only minutes before the meetings started. That was when a reporter was given a copy of the updated agenda. That violates the Freedom of Information Act, according to Jay Bender, attorney for the South Carolina Press Association.

"The law says you send the agenda (to local media outlets), not the agenda as you think it might be," he said.

The online version of the agenda wasn't updated in time for Tuesday's meetings, which Bender said is not required by law. But he said if a public body is going to post meeting information online, taxpayers should be able to expect that it is correct.

"It just seems sloppy to have it online and not accurate," he said.

County Administrator Allen O'Neal said he believed the county acted properly by changing the posted copy in the lobby. He added that the clerk who updates the agendas probably forgot to change the online version.

As for the vague wording of the proposed incentives, Steve Dykes, director of the county's economic development, said the package's details are still being negotiated.

Vic Rawl and several other council members said Wednesday that they expect to see detailed information about the incentives before they consider final approval on Dec. 22. Rawl added that he expects those details to be available to the public before then.

So far, the county incentives include:

• Designating Boeing's site at Charleston International Airport as a "multi-county industrial park," which would raise the per-employee tax break on the state's corporate income tax to $2,500.

• Giving the company access to special source revenue bonds that would return a portion of Boeing's tax payments to spend on infrastructure at the plant.

• Replacing Boeing's property taxes with a negotiated flat fee, typically for 20 or 30 years.

Dykes said Tuesday's approval by the full council was necessary to meet a deadline related to the special source revenue bonds. Those bonds must be approved by the state Budget and Control Board, which plans to address the issue at its Dec. 15 meeting.

"With the process we were going through, my team didn't give them a heck of a lot of heads up," Dykes said of County Council. "We had to push forward because we're on a (strict) timeline."

Council member Joe McKeown said he understands the need to move quickly, but added that the county can still balance the need for transparency with the rushed approval schedule for the incentives.

"I think everybody's wondering what happened, but at the same time, I understand how Charleston County is going to have to cut on a dime," McKeown said. "I bet this is not going to be the last special meeting."