Monday, November 30, 2015

Help everyone have a happy holiday – shop local.


Last December I submitted this op-ed for your consideration. The message is as accurate and true now as it was then, and I encourage you to think about the impact your shopping habits have on our city. Last weekend our local businesses participated in a nationwide effort to encourage you to shop locally. Toys, jewelry, and great holiday gifts can be found in downtown, and your dollars are needed there to keep our city thriving. Keep it local!

Do you remember the scene in the movie A Christmas Story that shows little Ralphie and the family in their downtown gazing in wonder at the toy display in the window of the department store? When I was a kid my hometown had a department store just like the one in Ralphie’s hometown called Globman’s. It was just down the street from a family owned shoe store named McCollum – Ferrell. I hated them both. There was nothing, and I mean nothing, that could ruin a seven year old child’s Saturday faster than being dragged to Globman’s and McCollum-Ferrell on a family shopping trip.

Globman’s was founded in my hometown in 1915, and McCollum –Ferrell started selling shoes in 1947. I wish I could tell you that these fine old stores, where store clerks knew their customers by their first name, believed that the customer was always right, and led the way in the community by supporting area charities, were still in business. They are not. They were both killed by the shopping mall that I and my friends hung out at in high school. After the shopping mall killed these two generations-old family businesses, it proceeded in serial killer fashion to wipe out other downtown stores as well.

Shopping, which we all know is not the reason for the holiday season, plays a critical part of our holiday celebrations. While the main street in the town I grew up in is eerily reminiscent of an old western ghost town haunted by tumbleweeds and lost fortunes, the businesses in our city are still alive and kicking. Here in Clinton you can walk into any number of businesses and be greeted by name. Store owners strike up a conversation about your family, football, or any number of interests. Store owners give to local charities, sponsor your child’s youth sports team, champion causes such as the United Way, and cheer the football team to victory on Friday night right alongside you.

They survive only because you choose to shop there, and when you stop shopping there, they will go out of businesses. Stop and think for a moment what our city would be like if downtown were dead. Does anyone really want to live in a dead city? Do you think a major employer would choose to build a new manufacturing plant in a town that had no shops, no restaurants, no community pride or no community spirit?  

Many times citizens will approach me or a member of my staff and tell us about a business in another town that they wish would locate here. Our shopping habits may actually be preventing those businesses from locating here.  As long as we are willing to travel to another town to be a patron of a business in that town, then that business will not choose to locate here. Why would they invest tens of thousands of dollars in building and opening a new store when we, their customers, are perfectly willing to get in our car and drive up to fifty miles to buy their goods or eat in their restaurant?

I know that as you read this you are pinching your pennies to buy that special gift, pay for groceries, and cover travel costs to see far off relatives this holiday season. You are not alone in your penny pinching because your neighbors, who own and work in businesses in our town, are doing the same. I know you are seeking out the best online deals and waiting in long lines at the mall to get a few percentage points off the price. I know you have to do that, because money is tight. Do your neighbor a favor, and take a moment to stop in a local business this holiday season. My family will be doing some of our Christmas shopping locally this year. You might be surprised at what you will find in a local store. There are good deals, perfect gifts, great services, and delicious meals to be had right here in our city. I know it is unreasonable to expect anyone to spend all of their money here but do yourself and the business community a favor and just check out a local business out this season.

Protecting our local business community is a two way street. Business owners must recognize that their competition is global. A local business isn’t competing with another local business located on the same street, but instead they are competing with hundreds of retailers in Greenville, Spartanburg, Columbia, Greenwood, and Newberry, and they are competing with the thousands of retailers that can be found online with the click of a button. Business owners must look for innovative ways to partner with each other to provide competitive value for our citizens, and that means being open, working together, and supporting events that your city puts on to bring customers to your doorstep. It also means working with your local government to help us find ways to partner to make you successful.

During the holiday season we all reminisce fondly about holidays past, which is what led me to think about the old stores in my hometown and how much I hated Saturday’s spent Christmas shopping as a kid.  I realize now how critical these family run businesses are to our city and to any city. Few things are more American than a family that builds the American dream over generations of managing a family business.  All that is left of the family businesses that were once Globman’s and McCollum Ferrell are their names etched into the marble fa├žades of the buildings they once occupied. The stores didn’t go out of business because of bad service, bad location, bad management or bad products. They closed their doors because the communities they supported and staked their names and reputations on for decades stopped supporting them. We let them down. We looked the other way when they needed us the most. We worried about saving a dime and ended up paying thousands of dimes in tax money to support laid off store clerks and to try and salvage downtown storefronts. We failed.

This holiday season take the advice of the Chamber of Commerce and shop in Laurens County first. Your neighborhood business owners have invested in our city and now is the time for us to do the same. We have the ability to keep our city’s businesses alive, keep our communities vibrant and the ability to show other business that this is a great place to locate. All you have to do is do some of your shopping locally, and by shopping locally you can ensure that our community has a very happy (and profitable) holiday season.

Grow! Grow! Grow!


A few years ago, when I first offered the privilege of serving your city council as city manager, I reflected on the challenges facing our city and the need for significant economic growth to support our city, reduce future utility costs, and provide a better quality of life for the people who choose to call this place home.

And I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that we had not grown. Clinton is a great place to live. We have set aside land for industrial and retail development. We’ve plowed roads into undeveloped territory to spur development and growth. We are the site where two interstates come together which, by some counts, bring 30,000 cars a day past our city. Our county is growing. We have not. What are we doing wrong?

The first step, with the support of city council, was to change our structure at city hall. We eliminated the assistant city manager position and used a portion of the savings to hire a Director of Community and Economic Development. In my view, we have leaders for two of the most important things that we do: Public Safety and Public Works, but if economic development is so critical to our organization shouldn’t we task a person with working on it day in and day out?

The next step was to take our show on the road. We met with county officials to try to identify why we had not grown as quickly as other areas, and we then met with officials at the State Department of Commerce. Mayor McLean worked with Governor Haley and he and I met with her her in Clinton to discuss economic development. All three, the county, the state department of commerce, and the Governor, told us the same thing: While we had invested in economic development we had not done as much as other communities to promote growth in our city.  It takes more than open land, more than roads, more than people, and more than two interstates coming together to make a community a place that grows.

Let’s start with the interstates. Yes, two interstates that connect three of the largest communities in our state intersect in our city. But I-95 and I-26 come together between Orangeburg and Summerville and both interstates carry more traffic in that area than 385 and 26 do here, and there is no growth where those two interstates intersect. In fact, you can’t stop and get gas or a hamburger or get a hotel room at the intersection of I-26 and I-95, and you can do those things here. Having two interstates come together in your community helps people leave your community faster if you haven’t invested in making sure that the land at those intersections is developable, that adequate water, sewer, electric, natural gas, and communications capacity exist at the site, and that an adequate workforce exists in an area near the intersection of the two interstates.

The second thing to look at is our industrial parks. In Clinton, our industrial parks are nice. We have roads that go into the woods. Plenty of land is available at reasonable prices. Our competition has gone further than that. When you visit the industrial parks in our region to evaluate the competition, which many of your city and county leaders have done, you will witness a completely different level of industrial park. The water, sewer, natural gas, and electric utilities are already in place. Streetlights light the roads at night. Landscaping makes the area inviting. Signage announces to the world that this is a great place to be. We haven’t taken our parks to that level and that is one reason that we are not able to land the businesses that choose to locate in other industrial parks in other communities.

The third thing to look at is workforce. Having quality people to work in a manufacturing facility is the most important requirement of all, and while our community has improved workforce development programs dramatically, including funding a scholarship for all city residents who are Clinton High graduates to continue their education at Piedmont Tech, we need to continue to develop career programs that help get our students ready for jobs in our community.

So what do we do? Here’s my opinion. First, we have to accept the fact that not everyone sees our community the same way we do. For a manufacturing company that want to be within 30 miles of a passenger airport, or the port, or downtown Greenville, or BMW – we do not appear to be the ideal location. Secondly, we have to improve the product we have available. Where our competition has spent funds on improving industrial parks, we must also. We must work with the county, the region, and the state to prove that we are a great place to do business.

We have to work together to make our community a great place to live and a great place to do business. Many of the initiatives that are happening right now, including plans to improve our industrial parks, construct recreational facilities, and improve our downtown appearance and business climate, will help make our community a place business will want to call home rather than a place they zoom by on the interstate without giving our city, and our citizens, a second thought.

You deserve a pat on the back...


As I sit here on what has become an unusually busy Sunday afternoon for many of us I find myself reflecting on the past week and weekend. While I had originally decided to focus my monthly article of the efforts we are undertaking in economic development in an effort to show you that are moving in some very positive directions when it comes to growing our economy and our community, I keep reflecting back to the near disaster we have all just emerged from and on you, our citizens, who rose above the flood waters to prove that Clinton is truly a great city. Do me a favor, and reach around and give yourself a big pat on the back. You deserve it. You did one heck of a job this weekend. As the rains fell, and the waters rose, and the trees toppled, and the powerlines snapped; you did exactly what you needed to do and your proved once again that the people of our city are what makes it great.

First, you heeded the warnings from the city, the county, the state, and your favorite meteorologists by preparing for the possibility of, as one weatherman stated, “a once in a lifetime rain event.” You went to the store and got groceries and then you went home and hunkered down. As the rains began to fall, you called your neighbors and the elderly to check on them.

While you were preparing, your city employees were too. Every single piece of emergency equipment, from chainsaws to generators to fire trucks and utility trucks, was checked, tested, and checked again to make sure it would perform perfectly when we needed it the most. A team of employees headed out to tackle cleaning off storm drains before the rains feel in effort to make the system function at the best possible level.

Then the rains began to overwhelm the city’s storm drains and waters began to rise. Creeks in some parts of city erupted from their banks and spread out over the road. You didn’t speed through the floodwaters or drive around barricades. You found different routes to church and you waited patiently as officers directed traffic around the worst hit areas. By doing that, you kept the number of traffic accidents to a minimum which allowed your police and fire employees to focus on keeping you safe and helping those in need instead of dealing with accident investigations. Some of you even gave our storm drain cleaning crews, who were dashing from trouble spot to trouble spot cleaning out plugged storm drains, a friendly thumbs up as you drove (slowly) by.

Trees fell all over town. Their old roots couldn’t hold them in the soggy ground any more. Buice Street, Jones Street, Stonewall Street, Calvert Avenue, Neighborhood Drive. Trees down on cars. Trees down on apartments. Trees down on power lines. Trees down on houses. You checked on each other. You took it all in stride. You were patient as our crews worked their way across town from tree to tree.

Many of those trees had power lines in them and you stayed away from them. You kept your family away from them. When our electric crews made it to your house some of you came out and said thanks. For two of you, when we got our equipment stuck in your yard, you were gracious and understanding. We will be back when it dries to put everything back together.

Thanks to you, power was restored to the majority of our customers in short order, with nearly everyone restored within a few hours. Thanks to you, not one life was lost in the storm. Thanks to your patience and understanding, the city was able to get streets open and services restored.

There are things that you will never see during a storm from the comfort of your home. You didn’t see our team of personnel who worked inside the Enoree River Raw Water pumping station as the water rose and ultimately flooded it to remove over one hundred thousand dollars worth of motors and equipment and get it to higher ground so that we wouldn’t waste your tax and utility dollars replacing it after the flood. You didn’t see the police officers and firefighters wading through water in the dark to go door to door to check on citizens in some of our hardest hit neighborhoods. You didn’t see the ballet of scheduling and moving resources that ran seamlessly in our dispatch offices and conference rooms.

 Many of you took to social media to monitor the situation, just as we asked you to, and many of you shared comments praising our employees and their efforts. You have no idea how much it means to a utility worker changing into their sixth pair of socks and trying to keep their feet dry in the storm or to a police officer who has waded from door to door to read a note from you, their boss, praising them for their efforts. It means a great deal. Thank you.

While we as a city have many challenges to face and many problems to address, you have proven once again that we as a city can survive anything because of who we are, our values, and our caring attitude towards each other. It is that attitude and not one of threats and anger, that allows us to have al ong history of rising above the challenges we face. The flood of ’15 is one for the history books, and one day the other challenges we face this year will be too. What will remain si a great city, of great people, with a tradition of working as a community to make it through the dark and stormy times so that we can all enjoy sunnier (and drier) days ahead.

Fighting Fires...


Our Mayor, City Council, and the City Leadership Team submitted this to our local paper in regards to the challenges we are currently facing as a community.
Our city is an amazing and wonderful place. The things that make this city great are not buildings or trees or stadiums or homes or factories. Our greatness is found in the people who build the buildings, plant the trees, cheer in the stadiums, live in the homes, and work in our factories.

And yes, over time, our buildings have aged, our trees have bent over with the weight they carry, our stadiums are not as great as they once were, our homes are in need of repair, and some of our factories have closed. Throughout all of the years our community has proven time and time again that when faced with crisis we are resilient, we are wise, we are tough, and we will prevail.

In 1876 our city faced one of many crises that pepper our history. The general store at the corner of Broad and Pitts caught fire and was soon engulfed in flames. The flames jumped from store to store and finally to residences near Broad Street. As our city began to burn to the ground, there was no fire department, no plan, and no hope. Did our forefathers stand and watch their city burn to the ground?

No they did not. They went searching for buckets to carry water.

Today our city faces a different type of fire. Sparked by rising utility costs; it is one fueled by rumors, anger, mistrust, and fear and it is moving through our community with the same speed and ferocious appetite as the great fire of 1876.

Is this a crisis? Yes, it is. A grenade that our city pulled the pin on in the 1980s has finally exploded and the result has been a rising utility rate that this summer, due to consumption and power cost adjustment charges, entered the realm of the entirely unacceptable. When a citizen must choose between food, life maintaining medicine, and paying a city utility bill we must take steps to help.

Some of you have taken steps to help. While council and staff are looking at long range solutions to address the problem, many of our citizens have shown the true spirit that lives in our community by raising money to help people pay for prescription medicine. One customer opened her door to find a pile of food on her doorstep left by a stranger. Some customers have opened their bills to see a credit on their bill; paid from an anonymous donation made to the city to help those struggling the most get through this summer. To those of you who have stopped us on the street to tell us of the prayers you are sending up to the heavens for this city, we humbly and gratefully thank you.

We imagine that, in 1876, as our city fathers stood close enough for the heat of the downtown fire to blister their skin and as they passed bucket after bucket of water in an attempt to tame the fire that there was doubt in their minds as to whether or not the fire could be tamed in time to save the city. We imagine bystanders huddled on the streets watching as the men of our city stepped forward and began to hurl buckets of water onto structures in what must have looked like a feeble exercise against impossible odds.

What history does tell us is that the bucket brigade of 1876 didn’t take unnecessary risks or make decisions based on little evidence, but instead they took a swift and methodical approach to fighting a fire and ultimately contained the fire and saved our fledgling city.

Now, as we fight the fire of utility costs we must make solid and sound decisions that will help our citizens without creating a new crisis that our children must address twenty years from now. The kicking of the can down the road stops here, it stops now, and stops with us – all of us. We have a good plan that offers opportunities going forward to address and stem the rising cost of electricity. We will continue to move forward, methodically, prudently, wisely, and aggressively. However we will not solve this problem overnight, and we will not address it through a series of unwise, unsound, and finically questionable knee-jerk reactions.

Last week it was suggested by this paper that the city over collected revenue this summer by comparing utility units sold to revenue billed for a single thirty day period in 2014 and 2015 and it was suggested that refund checks be issued. We, your elected representation and your staff, are not opposed to the idea of returning over collected revenues to the citizen. That is one reason the PPCA was implemented and it returned over collected revenues to our citizens in the form of a reduced electric rate below the $0.148 per kwh base rate three times since January. If allowed to do its job, it will allow us to develop a rate stabilization fund to prevent what happened this summer from happening again – and it will also, once that fund is built, return funds to our citizens.

When we compare figures from previous years to today, we have to include the cost of purchasing the electricity for resale and we need to look at costs over a much larger period than thirty days.  Between 2014 and 2015 the cost the city pays for power increased significantly, up to 10% on the demand fixed charges that we pay and 3% on the volumetric charges we pay. Those figures have to be accounted for and PPCA does that, and has done that, and the bill you will receive in October for energy used in September will reflect a PPCA addition of $0 – resulting in lower costs for energy than what was experienced this summer.

There are no pictures of our tired and worn out city fathers celebrating the fact that they stopped the downtown fire from destroying our fledgling city, but if there were we suspect it would look similar to the photograph of the 1977 state championship Red Devil football team as they celebrated their victory after defeating James Island. In the picture everyone is smiling, with their arms around each other and fists pumping in the air. They are the black and white sons of mill workers, shop owners, college professors, and educators. They have overcome challenges and they are now forever immortalized in the history of our city.

Decades from now, in a new volume of history of our great city, there will be a reference to the utility crisis of 2015. We are writing that history right now and we have to be sure that the story we write is not one that reports that we acted hastily, basing our decisions on pieces of data with no regard for the whole picture, resulting in a legacy that our children  and grandchildren must clean up because we failed to get it right.

Instead we can write a legacy that shows how once again every citizen of this community came together to fix a problem, made solid long lasting decisions to change our government operations, and created a stronger more vibrant city. Perhaps there will even be a picture of us – councilmembers, staff, and citizens – with smiles on our faces that rival those of the 1977 championship team. Together we can do this – now let’s get to work.

Utility Rates


Happy about your power bill? I’m not either. I got a big one too.

In fact, no one here at City Hall is happy about it. Your mayor, your city council, and your city manager hate seeing increased utility bills because that means that we are taking more money out of your pocket to fund city services. We’d much rather see you use that money to buy dinner in a local restaurant or spend that money in any number of ways that would have a positive impact on the local economy. I want you to have the best service at the lowest possible price. Period. No exceptions.

So first, let’s talk about the front part of the equation: service. The City of Clinton is an American Public Power Association Diamond RP3 Award winning utility, one of only two in the state. The other is Santee Cooper. We proudly serve you with some of the highest reliability ratings and fastest system restoration times after an outage in the southeast. Time and time again you tell me the only thing worse than a high rate is sitting in the dark with no power. We’ve gotten very, very good at dealing with the dark and we are getting better at dealing with those annoying blinks.

Now let’s talk about the second part of the equation: cost. Unfortunately, we also have some higher than average rates as compared to other providers in South Carolina. There are many factors that impact the rates, including the dramatically hotter June this year, the impact of a PPCA charge, the impact of our local economy on power rates (fewer customers to spread the cost out among), and some decisions made years ago. We try to balance our power rates by having some of the lowest property tax rates in South Carolina as a city, because we know it impacts our residents when they have to pay for government services, including government utilities. 

So what happened?

You power bill is higher this month for two reasons. First, the June billing cycle was unusually hot. There were many days with the temperature above 90 degrees. The hotter it is outside, the harder your air conditioning system and other appliances that keep things cool have to work. Even if you don’t adjust the setting on your thermostat the outdoor air temperature impacts how hard your air conditioner has to work to keep your home cool and the harder the air conditioner works the more electricity you use. We’ve seen some customers who used five times more electricity in June 2015 then they did in June 2014 even though they didn’t do anything differently, and that means a much higher electric bill.

But the heat wasn’t the only reason that your bill went up. Another reason is the city’s Purchase Power Cost Adjustment Charge, or PPCA, which changes each month based on what the city has to pay to a provider to purchase electricity, which added an additional $0.029 per kwH to the bill. Due to the mix of electricity the city receives, the cost to buy it each month changes a little bit. The PPCA passes the adjustment on to each customer equally based on their use of electricity. When the cost to buy electricity goes down, the PPCA passes the savings on to you. In the December 2014 billing cycle, the PPCA resulted in a 4% discount on your power bill. In the February billing cycle there was an 11% reduction, and in the May billing cycle it saved you 5%. In August the PPCA is still going to be positive but it could result in an 8% to 9% reduction compared to your current bill. 

We also are not in a position to just throw our hands up and go buy power somewhere else. Many years ago city officials signed a long term agreement to purchase power from our current provider and to cover certain obligations associated with the joint funding of power generation facilities. Even if we were able to buy power somewhere else, we would have to charge a higher rate to meet certain contractual obligations we have with our provider.

I wish I had more space to go into greater detail about this issue. Because what happened in June was unusual, complicated, and there were many factors that came together to create the situation that we experienced. I’ve prepared a much longer and more detailed set of information about your June power bill on my blog at www.clintonsc.blogspot.com.  Please take a minute to go to the website and read about these issues, because ultimately we are going to need you to help us make the hard decisions necessary to determine our future direction.

In the meantime, our customer service representatives are ready to help you by spreading out some of the charges to make paying your bill easier. In January, we want you to sign up for equal pay, so your power bill will be the same every month, making it easier for you to budget. And remember, we are all in this together, and the only way to address it, fix it, and make it better is by working together to find solutions that we (and our wallets) can all live with.

Transition


Transition. It means “the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another”, and if you hadn’t noticed there is a whole lot of “transitioning” going on around us at every level.

Nearly every department in our city is in the midst of a large scale transition designed to improve the way we do business and increase our capability to provide better service. At public safety many of these transitions are visible in the new uniforms, logo, badge, police car graphics, updated vehicles, and a new state of the art fire engine. What you might not notice at first glance is the new in-car and body cameras our officers are equipped with and the new crime mapping software that is being used to better protect you from crime. We hope you never have to see the new bunker gear designed to protect our fire fighters while they search for you in a burning building or the new “jaws of life” that work twice as fast as the old set to get you and your loved ones out of an entrapment situation minutes faster, and those minutes could mean your life, then we have been able to before. 

Administrative Services is in the midst of a utility billing computer system conversion that will make the bill easier to understand, and provide you with the opportunity to review your bill on line. It’s 2015, not 1985, and you expect and deserve to be able to have the opportunity to see your utility bill online, be able to understand it, be able to ask questions about it and be able to pay it without having to come up to city hall. But don’t worry; if you want to come up and talk to us we are here for you too.

Community & Economic Development is managing in a significant impact in construction in our city, with twelve new houses planned for our city and a major renovation of an existing apartment complex beginning soon. Dozens of derelict structures have been removed to improve the safety of our neighborhoods and the appearance of our city. A long range strategic plan for economic development for our community, developed by a group of citizens and community leaders over a period of six months, has been rolled out and is being implemented.

We are also making a big change to how we support businesses and events by transitioning towards a main street approach for our business districts and providing training for our small businesses. Several small businesses just completed a free training program provided by the city and the Kauffman Foundation to help them grow their business in our challenging economic environment. While the main street approach may not be the end all and be all of injecting vibrancy into our downtown and other business districts, we feel we must try a new tactic to support retail development in our city.

Public Works is in the middle of the largest sidewalk replacement effort in over a decade, and while the resources are not there to fix all of the problems, we are addressing the most significant ones. We are also developing a plan to get a good handle on our sewer issues and to fix them so that future generations will not have to deal with the problem of an underground sewer system that is failing. Making our sewer system better for our children is going to be a challenging and difficult effort that will require sacrifices from all of us, but in the end we have created a strategy to address these issues that is fair, equitable, and designed meet the challenges ahead.

None of the transitions we are going through as an organization happen out of the blue. They take planning and they build on each other just like a child’s set of building blocks can be put together, piece by piece, to create something new. Many of these projects have been years in the making, and have been designed to build upon each other to create a better local government that is in a better position to provide you with the service you deserve and expect.