SUMMERVILLE -- Three Dorchester County Council members who represent districts in the lower county were stunned Thursday to hear of a proposal to sell the human services center property in town and consolidate staffs on both ends of the county.
The two other Summerville area council members said the idea has been discussed informally among a few members but not the full council.
A Post and Courier story about the proposal set off a firestorm among residents in the heavily populated suburban area around Summerville, and raised concerns among members of the new council, who had informally agreed as a group to try to work more cooperatively.
"There is no proposal. There is no plan. There is no study. No one has been commissioned to do a study," said Councilman Bill Hearn, in whose district the property sits. Hearn, along with Summerville-area Councilmen David Chinnis and Richard Rosebrock, said they had heard no mention of the proposal until they read the story.
"I didn't mean to imply that full council had a plan and is going forward," said Council Chairman Larry Hargett on Thursday. Hargett, who represents a district in the lower county, said Wednesday a plan was under active consideration, the county administrator was working on it and he expected it to move to the front burner within a month.
On Thursday, Hargett said he expects council now will take up the issue when it meets Feb. 22 in St. George. He had planned to ask County Administrator Jason Ward to look at the feasibility of it but hadn't done that yet, he said.
"We're certainly going to look at a lot of different plans, and that may be one of them," said Councilman Jay Byars, who represents a district in the Oakbrook area near Summerville. He said he had heard the idea in passing. Councilman George Bailey, of St. George, pitched the idea among a number of cost-saving ideas he has.
That doesn't sit well with Hearn, Chinnis or Rosebrock.
"As a councilman, I would like to have that discussion as a council and not in the media," Chinnis said.
"I've experienced a good bit of this in the past couple of years," said Rosebrock about plans getting worked out by individual members, then sprung on the council. "If they want to do something they've got to get four votes. I think we're going to look into the rules and make sure everybody knows what the rules are."
The Summerville service center operates at the old Dorchester County Memorial Hospital on an entire city block at the busy intersection of Main Street and U.S. Highway 78. It's where residents in the suburbs can go to pay taxes, get building permits or flu shots.
Under Bailey's proposal, the array of human service offices in the buildings would move to smaller facilities in the lower county. The service staffs in those buildings and in St. George would be reduced to single sets of staff operating part-time offices, moving back and forth between the towns.
The facility dates to the years before World War II. It's enough of a landmark in town that residents launched a petition in the 1970s to maintain services there when the county looked to demolish it after the hospital closed. The Summerville Preservation Society launched an effort that saved it.
More recently, the county used the buildings as a cost saver. An emergency management office was moved from the center to a new, paid-for building last year. The tax assessors office then moved into that space from a leased office, and a medic station moved from a second leased office to the new EMS building.
"It's a valuable piece of property," Hargett said Thursday. "If we sold it, what would we do (with the services operating there)? Where would they go to? (But) with tight money issues and tight funding we're going to look at everything. There are no sacred cows."