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South Carolina Conservation Bank poorly managed, auditors say

Angel Oak

The Angel Oak on Johns Island was conserved in recent years with help from the South Carolina Conservation Bank. File/Provided

With the embattled South Carolina Conservation Bank facing elimination, Legislature-hired auditors have supported its opponents' concerns.

Among other findings in a review released Thursday, the Legislative Audit Council said the bank:

  • Overpays for properties.
  • Over-commits its budget.
  • Doesn't provide for enough public access.
  • Has a "subjective and ineffective application process" for grants awarded.

The bank is the state's public-private funding effort to conserve land. It has protected more than 300,000 acres since its start in 2004, including landmark sites, such as historic Morris Island and the iconic Angel Oak on Johns Island.

It's opposed by some legislators and real estate interests because a state fee on property transfers funds it. Legislature moves have slashed its annual funding almost in half, from $22 million to $13 million.

The review comes with the bank in jeopardy of ceasing operation if the Legislature doesn't reauthorize and fund it in the current session. The reauthorization is widely expected to be what Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, called a big battle. Conservation interests have formed a coalition to push for it.

Campsen, who has pre-filed a bill to reauthorize the bank, reacted sharply to the review.

"It sounds like the findings were preordained by (bank) opponents," he said.

Opponents say it has gotten away from its original mission, to protect riparian zones in rivers and streams and to add to conserved properties in the ACE Basin south of Charleston. It contracts to spend money for easements that won't be finalized for two years or so, before the Legislature provides that funding, and for easements on private land not open to the public.

"They shouldn't spend money that's not been budgeted to spend," and public money shouldn't pay for the grants, Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said earlier. Pitts, who sits on the Ways and Means Committee that works on the budget, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Council auditors are appointed by the Legislature to probe state departments and agencies at its request.

Campsen said the way the bank operates, asking for local and private matches from applicants competing for its funding, is more cost-effective than regulating to protect land or simply purchasing it.

Among other recommendations, the review proposes merging the bank with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources for administrative and personnel support, as well as assuring public access. "The Bank may benefit from a merger with SCDNR but continue with its separate mission — with its own designated funding," it said.

Campsen had not read the audit when he spoke Thursday but said the recommendation indicates the review is fundamentally flawed because DNR is among the groups that receive grants.

"If you merge it with DNR, DNR would have to be removed as a recipient, or it would be a conflict of interest. I don't know why they would do that unless they were basically doing as they were instructed by the powers-that-be," he said. "It calls the council's objectivity into serious question."

Reach Bo Petersen Reporter at Facebook, @bopete on Twitter or 1-843-937-5744.

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