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Panel OKs IL incorporation vote

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Recommendation now goes to secretary of state

By Reece Murphy

COLUMBIA – With a narrow vote by a key legislative committee Tuesday, Oct. 3, Indian Land incorporation proponents cleared the most difficult hurdle in their efforts to get the issue before Panhandle voters.
The seven members of the Joint Legislative Committee on Municipal Incorporation voted 4-3 to recommend that the secretary of state approve the incorporation proposal pushed by Voters for a Town of Indian Land (VTIL).
If the secretary of state certifies the effort – a likelihood given the committee’s statutory role in pushing the process forward – organizers can begin work on getting an election held within a few months.
VITL President Richard Dole said he and other members were relieved by Tuesday’s decision after more than two and a half years of work.
“It’s been a long haul since we started,” Dole said. “We’ll see what the people want. We’ll get the right to vote on it.
“If they want it, which I hope they do, that would be good, and if they don’t, that’s their choice,” he said. “I don’t foresee them not wanting it, though, given the current situation in Indian Land.”
VITL started its incorporation effort in February 2015, spurred by Indian Land residents’ complaints that the county government wasn’t responsive enough on issues of growth, development and public services.
During Tuesday’s hearing, VTIL’s second appearance before the legislative panel, committee members grilled the incorporation leaders on a range of issues, chief among them the group’s $7.7 million proposed annual town budget.
Committee appointee Arthur Guerry took VTIL members to task, asking what they thought they could provide for that amount of money that the county couldn’t.  
“What are you going to provide that is not already there?” Guerry asked. “It’s nuts and bolts. I don’t know what you’re striving for.
“Why are you tying to incorporate?” he said. “What is it that you’re not getting that you have the ability to get?”
Dole said a town of Indian Land would provide services that the county cannot, or will not, provide.
VTIL Vice President and Treasurer John Delfausse said the community would get “100 times better” service from a town government with local representation to wrestle with growth issues.
“I’m not talking about stopping the growth. I’m just talking about how it’s growing,” Delfausse said. “If we do nothing more than just give the residents the right to control the way the community grows and the way the community looks aesthetically, then we will have done a ton.”
Legislative panel member Paul Sommerville questioned incorporation organizers about their budget for roads, law enforcement and other services.
“I will assure you, without a shadow of a doubt, that the millage you have here is going to have to be increased by at least 80 mills,” Sommerville said.
Former VTIL member Jerry Holt, who developed the proposed budget, said the group carefully crafted the budget based only on the services the town of Indian Land would provide and that it was adequate to support those services.
VTIL members said they didn’t include road funding in the initial budget because the county, state or federal government already supported existing roads in the region and if the time came for the town to raise money for roads, residents could address it then.
Another committee appointee, Lessie Price, said she worried that incorporation organizers had not made it clear enough to voters that while taxes may be low in the proposed budget, there would likely come a time when taxes, and town fees, would have to increase to pay for services.
“The population of 4,000 who signed the petition, they need to know that more fees and more taxes are coming and they are going to be the bearers of those fees and taxes,” Price said. “Not trying to scare you, but that’s fact. That’s life.”
Dole said the county has already been levying such fees and the community is aware of it since Indian Land was being called on to pay new fees, such as the Panhandle stormwater fee, that the rest of the county benefits from but doesn’t have to pay.
“Local citizens would like the opportunity to become more involved in our own destiny,” Dole said.
Tough questions continued throughout the hearing, creating uncertainty among those in the gallery that committee members would make a positive recommendation.
The fist hint that things might be OK came from Rep. Michael Sottile about an hour and a half into the hearing.
“I just think that if a community wants to incorporate, we at least need to help them, which I think the board is doing,” Sottile said. “I hope the voters favor you.”
In the end, following other tough questions by Sens. Floyd Nicholson and Greg Hembree and Rep. Dennis Moss, the committee chairman, Sottile called for a vote. As the members voiced their votes one at a time, Lessie Price ended up casting the final and decisive vote for the incorporation.
“I about had a heart attack on that last vote,” VTIL Vice President of Public Affairs Matt McCusker said. “I was sweating.
“I think the committee clearly saw that we have the ability to have a town, and it should be up to the people of Indian Land to decide whether or not we want one,” McCusker said. “Now we’ll move on to a ‘Vote Yes’ campaign.”
According to committee attorney Heather Anderson, the recommendation will go to the secretary of state’s office by the end of this week. If the secretary of state approves the plan as expected, an incorporation committee will be established to organize a special election within 90 days.

Contact reporter Reece Murphy at (803) 283-1151 or follow on Twitter @ReeceTLN.