When Town of Hilton Head Island leaders announced Tuesday evening that residents could lose their convenience center on the island’s north end by the end of the year, it came as a surprise to many of those who use it – and at least one council member.
The possible closure was laid at the feet of Beaufort County leaders, whom assistant town manager Josh Gruber said only funded the center until Dec. 31.
Gruber, who is at the town’s helm until Town Manager Steve Riley returns from vacation in early October, and Mayor John McCann said the town would not foot the $100,000 bill for the convenience center. Similar centers in Bluffton, Burton and on St. Helena Island are operated and paid for by the county.
County leaders say the convenience center on Hilton Head is on town property and should be operated by the town. But, they say negotiations with Hilton Head are ongoing and the dump is not yet slated to close.
This latest skirmish over the dump is not an isolated incident.
It is the most recent in a string of disagreements – and inconveniences for taxpayers – that resulted from a yearlong political game of hot potato between town and county leaders.
While the politics involved go back to a disagreement over payment for policing by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, the real impact of disagreements between the elected officials is becoming more clear.
On Hilton Head, it may mean no place to take trash, parks that fall into disrepair and a new fee tacked onto tax bills.
Here are the four pressing issues resulting from a tumultuous summer of town and county relations, who claims what and where they stand:
1. Hilton Head’s convenience center
The town’s convenience center on Summit Drive may close at the end of the year.
It is the only public trash dump on the island. The next nearest site is in Bluffton or on Daufuskie Island.
Right now, residents can drop household garbage, bulky items including furniture, glass, tires, mixed paper products and recycle cans and plastic there.
Gruber said the county failed to adopt more than six months of funding for the center in its June budget.
He said the only thing that can save the center’s operation is if Beaufort County Council acts to amend its budget and adds more funding to the center.
But Gruber and McCann’s presentation on the possible closure made it appear much more certain than county leaders believe it is.
In June, when Beaufort County Council approved its budget, it only allocated six months of funding for the Hilton Head convenience center. That was due to the fact that the county plans to implement a decal system in October for the centers to curtail illegal dumping, Council Chair Joe Passiment said Wednesday.
“The Hilton Head convenience center is the only convenience center that is not on county property,” he said. “Therefore, we cannot do things on their property without their permission. We hope to negotiate something with the town. We still have time.”
County Administrator Ashley Jacobs reiterated that the county is “not closing” the Hilton Head convenience center.
“We are in the process of working out a solution with the town,” she said. “We may figure out a way to keep it open and fund it. We may also close it but keep it as a recycling center. Most people on Hilton Head have curbside service and we’re finding that a lot of people are putting construction and demolition debris there. It’s a very expensive site to maintain.”
Gruber said the county appears to be singling out Hilton Head’s convenience center, but after it implements the decal system, the county is closing the Gate convenience center in Beaufort and the Pritchardville convenience center in Bluffton at the end of the year — both of which are on county-owned property.
Passiment was adamant that negotiations over the convenience center were not “retribution” for Hilton Head’s decision to strip payment for sheriff services to the island.
2. County owned parks on Hilton Head
Two parks on Hilton Head are also about to lose regular maintenance services because they’re owned by Beaufort County, Gruber said.
Barker Field near Mitchelville and Old Schoolhouse Park off U.S. 278 near the entrance to the island will no longer be maintained by the county because it did not provide funding for maintenance in its most recent budget.
The town used those two parks and others as bargaining leverage in the last year.
In November, McCann offered to take over maintenance of all county owned and maintained parks on the island in exchange for paying less than $3 million each year for Sheriff’s Office services on top of taxes.
As that offer has devolved, the town has taken over maintenance that Beaufort County was previously performing on town-owned parks such as Bristol Sports Arena and Chaplin Park.
But the town has left the maintenance of the two county-owned parks on the island to Beaufort County.
Gruber appeared to warn residents that the open spaces could fall into disrepair on the county’s watch.
“The town will not be providing maintenance to those properties either because they are county owned,” he said Tuesday. “We also want to make the public aware of that fact should there be concerns with regards to the status or condition of those particular parcels.”
As the town appears to throw up its hands on the matter and accept a lack of park maintenance, county leaders say ownership of the parks are also still up for negotiation.
“We’ve been talking about these things for a long period of time,” Passiment said. “The parks are owned by us but operated by them. That’s money being spent the wrong way. They should have control over the parks that are on Hilton Head.”
3. County owned roads
Although McCann used county-owned roads on the island as another bargaining chip in Sheriff’s Office discussions early this year, the county will continue to pay for maintenance on 76 county-owned roads on the island, Gruber reported on Tuesday.
If residents have issues with potholes or maintenance on the roads, Gruber said they should report them to county officials.
4. A fee for Sheriff’s Office services
At the root of all of these disagreements is a political football that town and county leaders have tossed back and forth for the better part of a year: Who pays for law enforcement services from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.
Hilton Head leaders maintain that residents pay double for sheriff’s office services. The island is the only municipality in Beaufort County without its own police force.
McCann announced last November that he would pull $3 million in contributions from the town in the next budget.
The county responded by auditing the sheriff’s office services on the island and valuing them at $4.4 million.
All county residents contribute tax dollars to the Sheriff’s Office operations budget. McCann has not suggested he plans to stop those payments.
McCann then offered to take over maintenance of county owned parks and roads on the island in exchange for pulling the extra funding for the Sheriff’s Office on July 22.
But perhaps the most important development in the lengthy and sometimes contentious negotiations is a user fee the county has voted to impose on Hilton Head residents. It will range between $88 and $101 for property owners and would make up for for the loss in the law enforcement budget.
“All you have to do is look at other municipalities,” Passiment said. “It would cost a lot of money for Hilton Head to have their own police force. Everybody else that has a police force pays a sum of money to the Sheriff’s Office for their secondary police force.”
On Sunday, Hilton Head launched a website – wealreadypay.org – to give its legal argument against the county a public-facing presence. The site, created in house by the town’s communications department, again states the town’s position on the user fee, which it calls unconstitutional.
The town has vowed to take the county to court to keep the fee off this year’s tax bill, and Gruber announced Tuesday that a complaint, injunction and motion for expedited hearing are set to be filed shortly by the town.
The politics behind it all
As town and county leaders engage in another apparent game of chicken regarding which entity pays for which services, residents who pay taxes to both governments will feel the most immediate impacts from the summer of political impasse.
Much of the debate between leaders appears to stem from Beaufort County’s budget.
Though it was approved in June after many public debates, the county’s final 2021 operating budget is not yet available online.
In a text to a reporter Wednesday, Jacobs said she was aware the budget wasn’t on the website and that staff would “put it there as soon as we can today.”
Adding to the confusion for residents is the fact that none of the intergovernmental negotiations have taken place in public meetings.
Although Hilton Head has an intergovernmental committee, the discussions have mostly taken place through letters and calls back and forth between Mayor McCann, County Council Chair Passiment, Town Manager Riley and Assistant Town Manager Gruber, County Administrator Jacobs and other members of Beaufort County Council.
Gruber presented all the developments on Tuesday to update council, not to discuss the matters.
At least one Hilton Head Town Council member was surprised to learn of the new development concerning the convenience center.
Tamara Becker asked when the decision on the center was finalized by the county, and why the town had little input on the matter.
“Obviously we had heard about the defunding of other items on the island but this one I hadn’t heard anything about and I think it’s an important conversation because many of us use and depend on that convenience center,” she said.
Becker said island residents who use the center would have to contract for garbage collection if it closes.
Tom Lennox, another council member, said the impacts of this summer will continue to affect the town’s other operations, including an independent engineering study on the U.S. 278 bridges.
“I am disturbed that the relationship between the county and the town has deteriorated to this level,” he said.
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