After it was discovered that county tax bills, mailed this month, contained a costly error in the calculation of the new rural fire tax fee, tempers flared with officials pointing fingers at each other during Monday night’s council meeting.
Berkeley County Council members said because in recent months there were four separate spreadsheets, each containing different fire fee structures, floating around among county staff leadership, the spreadsheet the council received and approved during third and final reading of last month’s fee change was not the same spreadsheet used to tally the tax bills.
“It’s a mess. There’s hard numbers and formulas that don’t make sense,” said Bob Maibach, chief of Goose Creek Rural Fire Department.
Maibach, who also serves as second vice president of the Executive Board of the Chiefs Association, addressed council members Monday on the issue. He said the setback is upsetting to him and fellow rural fire leaders.
“We failed,” he said.
Maibaich told the Berkeley Independent he learned about the error about two weeks ago, almost immediately after residents started receiving their bills and phone calls poured in to his station.
“One man even showed up at my station,” he said.
According to Councilman Tommy Newell, the council ended up with the wrong spreadsheet after changes were made to the document between second and third reading of the ordinance.
Who's to blame?
During initial discussion on the issue at the County Finance Committee, Councilman Caldwell Pinckney didn’t hesitate to blame county administration for the issue—his comments prompting backlash from County Supervisor Bill Peagler, who stated the error came through the clerk’s office.
“Let me correct you, sir,” Peagler said. “It wasn’t the administration’s problem. There were a number of problems on this issue, so do not say, ‘It was just the administration’s issue.’ Now, that’s enough.”
“Now, wait a minute," Pinckney said, breaking back into the conversation to address Peagler. “You had your say. …Now, we (council) didn’t send the wrong information to anybody, but what we voted on was not sent to the proper person, so it didn’t come from council, and it didn’t come from the fire chiefs so it had to come from the administration.”
To clear up the confusion, Councilman Josh Whitley asked for clarification from County Attorney John Williams.
“Mr. Williams, was not the wrong spreadsheet...sent by Deputy Supervisor Callanan to the person who set the tax bill?” Whitley asked.
According to Williams, Callanan did indeed send an unrevised spreadsheet, “with his understanding that was the final version,” to the county’s real property and IT offices, where the bills were compiled.
Whitley then made a further jab at Callanan, pointing out his absence from the meeting involving third reading.
"I understand he wasn’t at the meeting — on taxpayers’ pay, Mr. Callanan, 126-plus thousand dollars whether he’s at the meeting or not, whether he’s watching it on video or not — he was responsible for knowing what to send to be put on the tax bill," Whitley said. “If he didn’t know or wasn’t comfortable because he wasn’t at third reading, he could have deferred. He did not. He sent second reading (spreadsheet), which he knew at second reading was not supported by this council, and he sent that spreadsheet anyway.”
Point of order
During the discussion Whitley and Peagler started verbally clashing, and at one point trigged the rise of the two separate “point of order” comments.
A member of a formal meeting voices the phrase when there’s a question about a possible violation of meeting rules. At the time of the query, the two county officials, seated next to each other, were engaged in a separated, heated conversation in the background of the committee’s primary dialogue.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Cox told the pair.
Whitley immediately fired back, addressing the crowd.
“I can’t wait to inform the public what was just said,” he said of his inaudible conversation with Peagler.
But the pair’s chatter boiled over during Cox’s commentary on the error for Goose Creek Rural Fire Chief Bob Maibach, standing at the podium. And Cox singled out the bickering officials.
“We have the county supervisor and a councilman going at it while I’m trying to talk because a mistake was made, and yes I know a mistake was made,” Cox said. “Am I happy? No. How do we fix what’s best for the taxpayers? That should be all of our concern.”
Whitley then shocked the crowd when he turned and asked for the committee’s consideration to go into an unplanned executive session to discuss removing Callanan from the administration. But Peagler fired back that Whitley’s reason for the closed-door discussion didn’t count as “exigent circumstances” — an emergency situation requiring council members’ swift action.
Using his authority as committee chairman, Whitley got the final say when he overruled Peagler’s point of order.
However, the executive session was short-lived, and members’ attitudes quickly reversed when the committee returned to public view.
No action was taken during the hidden deliberation, and Whitley apologized to the crowd for the meeting’s “high emotions.”
“The supervisor and I have shaken hands and calmed down considerably; but the supervisor’s very loyal to his employees, and I applaud that,” Whitley said. “We’re both very passionate about Berkeley County.”
Reaching a compromise
After much discussion, council members voted against an amendment to change the current tax bills, since correcting the fee error and re-mailing the bills would cost taxpayers an additional $4,000. Calculations showed that though the error resulted in about $48,000 less in rural fire tax revenue for the year, it would cost about $52,000 to issue new bills.
“We need to do what’s right for the taxpayers and move forward,” Cox said.
Cox also expressed his “hurt” over hearing Maibach state that only half of the chiefs had signed the fire fee contract. Maibach clarified how some unanswered questions had prompted the hesitation.
“It was simply to find out was there, in fact, a mistake made,” Maibach said. “We wanted to get clarification.”
Cox quickly squelched Maibach’s concern, challenging the fire leader to instead express appreciation his budget would still be increasing at least 50 percent.
“I would not suggest getting into a debate about this with me,” Cox said. “The money’s there; ya’ll are doing a great job, and I want to see (the contract) go forward; but we are working really hard here, and we told you a mistake was made.”
Council members said they do plan to correct the issue next year and vote on a new ordinance that will reflect the correct fire fee change, boosting funding for each of the 25 rural fire departments in the county’s unincorporated region—many of them barely surviving on their current operating budgets.
According to the plan the council believed it had agreed to at its Sept. 10 meeting, the fee was to increase from the $75 flat fee, approved in 2015. The new fee would be based on a tier structure more directly proportional to the individual sizes of homes and businesses.
Maibach told the Berkeley Independent that at the time the new plan was approved, the change would allow additional funds to flow into each fire district, helping departments reach a minimum annual budget of about $100,000. He said the extra money could be used to purchase better equipment, hire more manpower and pay some personnel.
Despite the bill error, the departments will still see increased budgets this year, though slightly lower than anticipated. It’s a silver lining Cox told Maibach he and fellow rural fire chiefs can still celebrate.
“We are handing you more money, and to whom much is given, much is expected,” Cox said. “I’m happy with the money; I’m not happy with the way it was passed.”
“We gave y’all the biggest increase you’ve had on any spreadsheet — ever,” Whitley said. “We should all be in a circle singing together, really.”