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By Stan Welch
As reported in recent issues of The Journal, the neighboring towns of Pelzer and West Pelzer have consolidated both their public works departments, and some of their administrative functions. The public works functions are supervised and directed by West Pelzer’s Michael Mahaffey, with an additional employee assigned to Pelzer.
When the new West Pelzer Municipal Center is occupied, Pelzer Town Clerk Heather Holcombe will have her office there as well as West Pelzer Clerk Paula Payton.
Negotiations to have West Pelzer provide police coverage to Pelzer are continuing.
The towns are working together through the charrette process to determine a master plan to improve the Highway 8 corridor that the towns share. The final results of that study will be presented to the public later this spring.
It is expected, in tone and in detail, to encourage further cooperation between the towns.
Pelzer Mayor Steve McGregor said that the cordial and agreeable atmosphere among the various townspeople involved in that process was very rewarding, and seemed to add to the momentum that the spirit of cooperation seems to be building.
He also cites the establishment of a joint sewer committee, consisting of himself and mayor pro tem Roger Scott, along with West Pelzer Mayor Blake Sanders and mayor pro tem Jimmy Jeanes, as a milestone of the growing cooperation.
“We established that committee to better manage the sewer upgrades both towns were undergoing. We share a lift station, and we had been splitting time, with their guys operating it some of the time, and our guys operating it some of the time,” McGregor said. “But then, we began losing personnel from our public works department, and when Brad West finally left, it just seemed the ideal thing to do to merge the town’s employees. Since our only remaining employee was our town clerk, it just followed naturally to relocate her offices as well. The momentum has been very natural, and not forced at all.”
West Pelzer Mayor Blake Sanders agreed, saying that each new opportunity seemed to lead to the next one. “Steve and I talk almost daily, about the day to day details of the two towns’ operations. We often talk about how any given situation might be handled if the two towns were one. In many cases, those circumstances offer advantages that are real for all of our citizens. But right now, the idea of a consolidation of the towns is in its infancy, a very casual look at possibilities and potential benefits. There is nothing serious at this point.”
McGregor preferred the term embryonic to describe the status of consolidation. “Infancy seems a little far along,” he joked in a telephone interview with The Journal.
Such cooperation between two towns historically seen as rivals would have been hard to imagine just a few short years ago. But the evidence is growing that the towns may be moving towards a merger.
If that proves to be the case, a number of legal and procedural issues would have to be addressed.
According to information available in the Municipal Association of South Carolina’s annexation handbook, there are three mechanisms available to allow for annexation of contiguous properties by a municipality.
All three involve a petition; the means differ largely in terms of the percentage of the voters whose signatures are required to trigger that specific means, which in each case, results in a public referendum on the annexation.
Last year, Pelzer voters approved the annexation of several hundred households in the upper and lower mill villages, effectively increasing the size of the town more than tenfold.
The resulting challenges have been formidable, as the entirely new Town Council has discovered.
McGregor was the only incumbent retained during the last municipal election. Some of those challenges have been made more manageable by the adjustments mentioned above.
The MASC handbook also contains a very specific exemption to the petition requirement. Citing Section 5-3-30 of the S.C. Code of Laws, the handbook states that when “two or more municipal corporations propose to consolidate, no petition is required, and each municipality may call for the election.” The gist of that is that a referendum is not required; an important distinction, since such referendums have to be conducted during a general election.
Section 5-3-40 states that “The governing bodies may, after public hearing, stipulate and agree upon the terms of the consolidation or boundary adjustment by ordinance adopted by each municipality, which shall be binding on the enlarged municipality.” (All emphasis provided by the editor.)
The newly formed municipality would be required by law to provide the Secretary of State, the SCDOT, and the South Carolina Department of Public Safety with a written description of the boundaries, as well as a map or plat of the newly formed town.
Subsequent issues to be dealt with would include the makeup of the new town council, and the form of government to be retained (both towns currently use the strong mayor form of government).
If that were to change, an entirely different process exists, and must be followed. According to Scott Slatton, of the MASC, a referendum is required for that, and a date can be set for thirty to ninety days from the time the petition is certified.
Both mayors agree that such decisions are well down the road, but both agree that the road is one worth traveling. “There is a growing sense of community, a feeling that there is a real common purpose and real benefits to be achieved by working more closely together, said McGregor. “It seems as if this is an idea whose time, if it has not come already, is certainly on the horizon.”
Sanders is even more enthusiastic. “There are just so many advantages to an eventual merging of the two towns. We will have a much stronger voice in the county, and the ability to access funding from other sources will be greatly enhanced. And the fact is that we are all the same people. We are already a community – two towns, but one community. We will be stronger when we are united. There is obviously a lot of work to be done, but it is work that will benefit all our citizens.”