On Tuesday, for the first time, voters heard from each of the four candidates running for the office of the Mayor of Summerville. They met at Coastal Coffee Roasters for a forum organized by the Dorchester County Republican Women's Club. A large crowd turned out to listen to each candidate address growth, traffic, affordable housing and the town's budgeting process.
During a brief introduction, Dorchester County Councilman Bill Hearn said he brings present-day experience to the election.
“There are a lot of issues you’re going to hear about tonight; traffic, flooding, infrastructure issues,” Hearn said. “I’ve got the experience and the ability to work on these issues and more importantly; work with others to solve these issues.”
Brandon King, a real estate agent and server at the IceHouse Restaurant, said he doesn’t have the experience level of the other candidates but he doesn’t think that really matters.
“We need to talk to the citizens of Summerville and I think that’s ultimately what is going to matter,” King said.
Musician Fleming Moore began his introduction with a short prayer in which he asked out loud for God to give him wisdom and for the “courage to speak truth.” He promised to say that prayer before every town council meeting, if he is elected as the mayor of Summerville. He said he was concerned about gentrification within the Brownsville community.
“A lot of the people...myself included, earn below the $55,000 median (income) and we have a hard time accumulating wealth,” Moore said. “I want to be a voice of the low man.”
Ricky Waring, former fire chief and town councilman, said he has the experience needed to serve as mayor of Summerville. He said the town’s public safety departments make up the biggest budgets and currently the police department needs more funding.
“It takes working together with the town council to make that happen,” Waring said.
On the topic of Summerville’s growth, Moore suggested the creation of a light rail between Summerville and Saint George.
“If we get light rail, we’ll be able to recruit industry, help our tax base, help our schools,” Moore said.
King said the town should prepare for growth by putting infrastructure in place before development comes into the town.
“Make sure storm drains are in place, so that we’re not getting flooding, make sure roads are in place so we’re not seeing traffic woes,” King said.
Hearn said he has spent years working on moving growth away from Summerville. He said he helped to bring water to the Highway 78 corridor, which lead to residential and industrial development in that area. He also talked about how Summerville is a multi jurisdictional area and the town must collaborate with Dorchester County and Berkeley County to address growth.
Waring agreed with Hearn and said Summerville must talk with its sister cities and counties about how to address the area’s growth.
“It’s going to take good planners...it’s going to take people who are smart on growth to get together to help the elected officials,” Waring said.
King said reducing property taxes will lead to more affordable rent for residents and said a “tax reduction across the board” will lead to “more economic boom for the local economy.”
One topic that King repeated several times was his belief that the town needs an adequate public facilities ordinance. He cited Nexton as “a shining example” of a developer that paid for infrastructure.
Hearn, Waring and Moore all said they were opposed to the town using an adequate public facilities ordinance.
Hearn said Nexton is not an example of an adequate facilities ordinance, rather it is a result of a development agreement between the company WestRock/MeadWestvaco and the Town of Summerville’s planning department.
“As a county councilman, we did not support the adequate facilities ordinance because it hasn’t worked,” Hearn said. “By 2008, 2009, it was not working in other jurisdictions. The notion however, of having people pay as they go, that part makes sense. Adequate public facilities as an ordinances, no, it doesn’t exist in Dorchester County, it doesn't exist in Summerville, it has tried, it has failed, you need something different and something better than that.”
Waring agreed with Hearn and said he too experienced a time when the town considered turning to an adequate public facilities ordinance and it did not work.
“We voted it down unanimously on council in 2008, 2009,” Waring said. “Development agreements, like Bill said, they are great; the only problem is the town wasn't tough enough with our development agreements. We learned a lot.”
Moore too said he prefers development agreements over a public facilities ordinance. He again turned to the topic of light rail from Summerville to Saint George as one way to address the area’s need for public housing.
“Affordable housing doesn't mean a thing if you don’t have rapid transportation,” Moore said. “What good does it do if you’re in an affordable house but you can’t get to work?”
Regarding ways to ease traffic congestion, Hearn said Summerville has “one glaring omission that still sits out there.”
“We have not completed the Berlin G. Myers Phase III,” Hearn said. “We’ve been talking about that for about a decade.”
The South Carolina Department of Transportation project has been working on obtaining permits. Once complete, the project is expected to pull 25 percent of through traffic off of Main Street.
Hearn said he is not yet satisfied with the town’s current designs for a roundabout at the Five Points intersection where Carolina Avenue, Main Street, and Tupper Lane meet. He said there should be more public input and community members should see updated designs.
Waring said he is “totally against the roundabout.”
King suggested the town synchronize all of the traffic lights on Main Street and look into the use of thermal weather resistant cameras. He indicated that he wasn’t familiar with the proposal to put a roundabout at the Five Points intersection.
Moore also indicated he wasn’t informed on the details of the roundabout project, but he said sometimes people “might have to sacrifice some of our property for the common good.”
“My advice is: acceptance is the key to peace; accept that you’re going to be in traffic, plan for it,” Moore said.
Waring said when he was working for the Town of Summerville, the budgeting process involved building a budget before setting the millage rate.
“I don’t see how you can hardly set the millage and then request to your department heads to set a budget,” Waring said. “If I were to get elected, I would try to convince council — let’s flip it back around.”
Moore suggested the town focus on raising revenue by recruiting more industry to the area near the Nexton Parkway. In addition, he said his “pipedream” is to recruit the film industry to Summerville.
“If we got film production here, we would get more tourists here and collect more hospitality and accommodations taxes,” Moore said.
King proposed cutting taxes “across the board.”
“I don’t believe that we should give out tax breaks to the few, we should give to all,” King said.
Hearn said as a Dorchester County Councilman, he has worked on 19 budgets and in his experience, the needs are put out first, then they are pared down before setting a millage.
“Giving money back to the taxpayers says that you’ve accomplished everything you need to do… that all your parks and infrastructure are in place, I don’t think that is the real world,” Hearn said. “Tax relief is doable, there are ways to do it, there are tools to do it, but until we have accomplished all the things we need to do from an infrastructure standpoint, I don’t think we’re yet in a position to start giving money back.”
Hearn said, historically, the town has seen a low voter turnout for municipal elections, and that should change. He said he wants to represent Summerville using his experience and connections within the region. To leverage the money to get projects done, the town will have to work with other governments, he said, and that is something he has been doing.
“I want to bring energy and enthusiasm and commitment to the Mayor’s Office,” Hearn said.
King said he joined the race because he saw a lot of people who felt they were unheard by elected officials.
“We can come together, unify under consensus building issues,” King said. “I’m here to talk to the people who aren’t being talked to… who aren’t coming out to vote.”
Moore said he is not the typical candidate, but he is willing to serve and he said he believes the people he would represent as mayor are those who earn half of the median income.
“I can be an honest broker on city council when it comes to development,” Moore said. I have no connections with developers, builders or real estate.”
Waring said he is a candidate with experience and he is planning on being a full-time mayor who will work out of City Hall every day.
“One thing I believe we are lacking in Summerville that we had when I was there, because of Berlin G. Myers, we had service to our citizens,” Waring said.
Waring said if elected, he will be service-oriented.
“That’s how I want to run the town of Summerville,” Waring said. “It should be run that way.”