No New Taxes, Sustainability Office, School Board at Odds 

News Blips

"In the first six months of next year there will be more retail museums than retail stores."

Britt Beemer, chair of the Charleston-based America's Research Group, regarding the post-holiday landscape for national retailers. He noted that Victoria's Secret and Urban Outfitters are doing well, but Saks Fifth Avenue and Talbots are struggling. Source: TIME

City of Charleston:No New Taxes

The City of Charleston is expected to hold taxes at the current level next year, even as city staff call 2009 the toughest budget in 33 years. The city will dip into its reserves, to the tune of more than $2 million, due to an expected loss in revenues, the first year-to-year loss in decades. There is an increase in spending by only $719,000 — last year's nearly $147 million budget included increased spending of more than $8.3 million.

"We just can't raise taxes, with the pinch that everyone is feeling. That would just be the wrong signal to send," Mayor Joe Riley says.

Property tax collections, construction permits, business licences, state aid, and tourism revenue are all expected to fall this year. Construction permits alone have dropped by more than 45 percent since 2006.

The budget includes 20 new public safety workers, including 12 additional firefighters expected to be hired in late 2009. That will mean 45 new positions added to the fire department since June 2007, when the city lost nine firefighters in the Sofa Super Store blaze.

Elsewhere, the city has cut back on travel, training, office supplies, and hiring. Employees making over $60,000 will go without cost-of-living salary hikes. But all police and fire staff will receive a flat 1.5 percent increase. Mayor Joe Riley will receive the 3 percent annual increase promised in his contract, but plans to refund that money to the city every quarter.

And don't look to 2010 to be better.

"It may be that the budget for next year will be just as challenging," Riley says. —Greg Hambrick

Charleston Creates Sustainability Office

Though it's a tight budget year, Charleston Mayor Joe Riley is looking to make departmental changes — all without increasing overall costs. He has proposed shifting the Department of Planning, Preservation, and Economic Innovation to the Department of Planning, Preservation, and Sustainability. The city will also create a sustainability director who will oversee efforts toward energy efficiency, recycling, green technology use, and sustainable land use policies.

"This person will save the city money — eventually we'll save a lot of money," Riley says. "But more important than that is for Charleston to seize the moment and be a leader in the sustainability movement."

A business services division will also be created in the planning department to support existing businesses. The economic development division will be eliminated, with those efforts being shifted to the mayor's office.

"This time is about opportunity," Riley says. "We have to do more with less and not be defensive or reactive." ­—Greg Hambrick

10

That's North Charleston's new ranking in CQ Press' list of most dangerous cities. The city dropped from last year's seventh place ranking, even though rapes and robberies increased and assaults and murders were only slightly lower. North Charleston officials say the list doesn't give an accurate depiction of crime in the city. They also note that the city has seen a sharp drop in murders for 2008. Source: The Post and Courier, FBI

21 percent

That's the number of Republicans or those leaning Republican polled recently who thought that Lindsey Graham would be a good candidate for president in 2012. Graham was ranked tenth out of the 10 names offered by the pollsters. Jeb Bush was number eight. Source: Gallup Polls

School Board At Odds Over Charter Application

The Charleston County School Board could not reach an agreement on a charter school application by the teachers and parents at the district's Drayton Hall Elementary. The vote split 4-4. At press time, the district was expected to reconsider the application at a special meeting when all nine members could attend.

The state requires the district to provide a set amount per student at a charter school, which would have grown Drayton Hall's annual take by $2 million, according to district estimates. Already facing a shortfall, district staff and select board members are concerned that it could bankrupt the county if other district schools sought conversion.

"To tell a community that its school will be closed as we give another school a $2 million allocation is a difficult situation to be in," says Superintendent Nancy McGinley.

The district also claims the proposed charter doesn't offer innovative ideas. School Principal John Cobb says the school will provide expanded music and foreign language programs.

"We're asking you to let us get away from the strings that tie our hands," Cobb says.

Board member Gregg Meyers supports Drayton Hall, but he's been disappointed in other schools that have converted to charter.

"I have no problem spending the extra money, but I want to know that the outcomes are going to change," he says. "We haven't seen that so far. We spend more and we get the same."

McGinley also has presented plans to expand magnet school opportunities — an effort to make district schools "the most attractive option for Charleston County parents." —Greg Hambrick


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