“Too bad the Air Force dropped that A-Bomb on Mars Bluff,” someone quipped to me this week. “Only a few miles west and they could have taken care of Timmonsville.”
The line refers, of course, to the infamous accidental bombing of eastern Florence County back in 1958. An atomic weapon slipped out of the belly of an Air Force and fell to the ground out along Fore Road, not far from the Francis Marion campus. The detonating charge exploded, rattling windows and creating a sizeable crater, but the nuclear warhead apparently wasn't armed so the chain reaction that would have turned a chunk of the Pee Dee into a wasteland never happened.
There were a seemingly infinite number of insults one could level at the tiny western Florence County town, especially when its problems seemed rooted in a dysfunctional town council and combative administration.
Now, the situation is far more serious.
A bomb may, indeed, be set to detonate. In fact, it may have already started going off.
Rumors and anecdotes of an increasing criminal activity since the town council disbanded Timmonsville's police force on May 11 exploded into fact this week with a string of break-ins and thefts that shook the very security of Timmonsville to its core. One of the crook's main targets was — and this is both ironic and symbolic — the town hall and (former) police station. The bad guys made off with, among other things, guns and tasers. The weapons once used to protect the town's citizens are now in the hands of those who would do them harm.
Bread as well as bullets were desired by the criminal scourge. A few days later, the local Boys & Girls Club was robbed of food intended for children in its summer meal program.
Residents said what happened Thursday and Friday are just two of the many crimes in Timmonsville, some which go completely unreported. One person I spoke with said they and their family were afraid to go outside after dark, fearful that one of the many prowlers now lurking in the night will grow tired of robbing businesses and community centers and turn to local residents.
Timmonsville, policed now by the occasional sheriff's patrol, is literally on the brink of lawlessness and its elected officials seem incapable of doing anything about it.
The town council's inability to address even the simplest of problems was front and center yet again at its meeting Tuesday night when members could not even agree to hire an auditor, something mandated by state law. They voted three times before closing the issue in what can only be called a pathetic display.
Meanwhile, looming somewhere in the background, is an ongoing investigation by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). The agency began investigating town government more than a year ago. Although SLED has been buffaloed by the same problem that has plagued recent auditors of the town — a lack of proper written records — a SLED spokesman said Friday that investigation was ongoing. That may or may not be heartening. SLED may eventually get to the bottom of things, but nothing agency does it likely to restore order.
The town is faced with two options: continue to limp along as a shell of a municipality or abandon the town charter and be absorbed into the county.
A town can stop being a town? Yes, it's possible.
State law offers three ways a town can bring about its own “dissolution” and cease to be a town(Section 5-1-100 of the South Carolina Code of Laws):
—A majority of registered voters petition the town council to dissolve the town charter. The issue is then put on the ballot in a special election and if two-thirds of voters favor surrendering the charter, the results are presented to the secretary of state and the municipality is dissolved.
—The town's population drops to less than 50 people, in which case its charter is automatically forfeited.
—The secretary of state cancels the charter if a municipality performs no municipal services, collects no taxes or other revenues, and has not held an election for four years.
How often does a municipality dissolve? It's happened twice in the past 25 years, according to the South Carolina Municipal Association. Mt. Carmel in McCormick County and Chappells in Newberry County were both dissolved at voter's request because the entities weren't providing services.
The only real service Timmonsville is providing its citizens is its multimillion dollar, dilapidated water system that it probably cannot afford to operate. Cede that to the City of Florence, which would have capability to maintain and run it appropriately, and then absorb into the other services, such as they are, into the county.
If the citizens of Timmonsville think leadership really has failed — and there's plenty of evidence to suggest that it has — then the citizens of Timmonsville should stand up, say so, and take the appropriate action.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
It doesn't get much more desperate than Timmonsville right now.
John Sweeney covers politics and government for the Morning News. Contact him at 843-317-7276 or by email at jsweeneyflorencenews.com.