COLUMBIA — As much as $8 billion is up for grabs in South Carolina, and Friday more than 400 government officials trekked to the capital city to find out how to bring as much as possible back home.
Charleston Mayor Joe Riley, along with Columbia Mayor Bob Coble and the Municipal Association of South Carolina, put on the day-long Stimulus 101 Summit to help communities sort through the complex $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress earlier this year.
About $3 billion will go directly toward government services, including Medicaid and supplemental funding for high-poverty schools. About $700 million of that is designed for state budget aid, specifically public schools, money Gov. Mark Sanford said he won't use unless an equal amount goes to pay down state debt.
The bulk of the money is available through tax breaks and grants.
Government officials and firefighters from the Lowcountry turned out in big numbers, including representatives from Charleston County, Mount Pleasant, Folly Beach, Goose Creek and Hollywood.
Charles Riddle, health and safety officer for the St. Paul's Fire District, said fire personnel wanted to come to see if any money was available to help build two new stations and renovate the district headquarters in Hollywood. The fire district covers 465 square miles and serves southern Charleston County, including Hollywood, Ravenel and Meggett.
"There is a lot of available funding, but we have got to get our cities and our counties to work together to get us some of that," Riddle said.
Riley said he and Coble had a sense that communities were desperate for guidance on the massive stimulus bill that contains complex procedures with short time frames that local governments must follow. The stakes are high, he said, because of the economic strain felt by South Carolina's families.
"In South Carolina, our governor is AWOL on this whole initiative, and fighting a substantial part of it," Riley said. "Mayor Coble and I felt with the governor exhibiting no leadership that it was our responsibility to pull this meeting together to help the towns and communities and counties in South Carolina and make sure we were getting as much information as possible."
The two-term Republican governor has stood out nationally as a conservative voice on the stimulus package, a position he made clear before Congress made it law. Some, however, view Sanford's position as a calculated way to raise his national profile.
The governor argues that accepting $700 million portion of the stimulus — the only amount that Sanford said he controls — would elevate government spending artificially and lead to bigger problems in a couple of years, including inflation.
"The governor is very much leading on the stimulus, he just happens to be leading in a very different direction than that of Mayor Riley," Sanford press secretary Joel Sawyer said. "Thousands of South Carolinians stood up this week and said they're tired of more in the way of government spending, and they're tired of passing on debt to future generations. It's a shame that Mayor Riley has chosen to ignore those citizens, and favors government being the solution to every problem."