Editorial | Outside Help for Atlantic Beach

04/11/2013 5:48 AM

04/11/2013 5:49 AM

Stop us if this sounds familiar:

A small but historic Carolina town with deep roots in black history and a proud tradition of overcoming the odds finds itself mired in a nasty cycle of incompetent or corrupt leadership. Its debts vastly outweigh its income. Its finances are a shambles, with residents and outside officials alike asking where the money went. Town leaders bicker, argue and take each other to court rather than discuss problems like grown-ups.

The town’s current political leaders, facing hard questions about dubious expenses, have responded with claims of “witchcraft” and enemies “raised by the devil.” And residents watching events unfold are left shaking their heads at the mismanagement and negligence that has brought their hometown so low.

Atlantic Beach? Nope. Right situation, wrong Carolina.

As the Raleigh News & Observer reported on Sunday, Princeville, N.C., the first town in the nation chartered by African-Americans, finds itself struggling once more under crushing debt, inept leadership and dodgy accounting.

Atlantic Beach residents know the feeling. The coastal S.C. town has suffered in recent years through multiple election squabbles (we’re at 517 days and counting since the town’s still-unresolved November 2011 election), debts and financial woes that have led to the dismissal of most of the town staff, bickering and in-fighting that has paralyzed its so-called leadership, and an almost total ignoring of financial responsibilities (the exception seemingly being when said responsibility personally benefits those in charge).

In the latest ignominious twist for the beleaguered Black Pearl, as The Sun News’ Amanda Kelley reported last week, the S.C. Treasurer’s Office is withholding money from the town, a result of its years of not filing a required financial audit with the state. The withheld revenue would theoretically act as an incentive for the town to get its books in order (and it has contracted with an accountant to begin work anew on the audits) but even if the paperwork is completed, the money won’t be flowing back to town coffers. Why?

Treasurer’s Office spokesman Brian DeRoy said Wednesday that the town also hasn’t been paying into the state retirement system, a requirement for its town employees. So the treasurer has given the about $39,000 withheld so far to the retirement system to help settle that state debt. The town still owes another $5,400, though as the treasurer continues to hold onto court fines and accommodations tax money, perhaps at least that debt will be paid. After the retirement system comes the state Department of Employment and Workforce, to which DeRoy said the town owes about $50,000. And after the state’s jobless agency, who knows who’s next. But only after all its state debts are settled – and the audits are complete – will the town begin to receive its state funds again.

The treasurer’s action isn’t the only sign of continuing turmoil in Atlantic Beach. Just about a month ago, Darnell Price, husband of Town Councilwoman Windy Price, filed suit against former Town Manager William Booker, only the latest in a long and unending string of legal battles between current and former town leaders. The chaos, in other words, shows no signs of abating.

So what’s to be done? The strikingly similar plight of Princeville offers a solution.

In North Carolina, the state enjoys the services of the Local Government Commission, a branch of the state treasurer. Most of the time, the panel simply oversees bond issuances and receives municipal audits. But when towns get themselves into deep financial troubles with no realistic way out, the commission can also step in and take action. In Princeville’s case, the state took over the town eight months ago, renegotiated contracts, reduced its debt, put it back on a path to stability and began a criminal investigation into its leadership and their spending. When the town is firmly back on that path, the commission will step back once more (as it did after taking over the town back in 1997) and put it back in the hands of town residents.

South Carolina should take note and follow suit.

It’s not a new idea. North Myrtle Beach Rep. Tracy Edge has proposed a similar state commission multiple times in recent years. He promised Tuesday to resubmit the bill. New North Myrtle Beach Sen. Greg Hembree has also expressed support. And the Municipal Association of South Carolina has endorsed the idea. MASC Deputy Executive Director Reba Campbell said Tuesday that “we are still very supportive of the idea of there being a safety net of some sort that helps these cities that get into dire financial trouble.”

But the suggestion has run into trouble multiple times. The most recent time it was proposed, it floundered because it included the revolutionary idea that local government officials should also have some state-provided training in how to follow the laws as a local government official. Now it’s hitting more speed bumps. DeRoy said Tuesday the treasurer’s office is working with Hembree on a new version of the bill, but it’s a work in progress with concerns about the scope and size and makeup of a new state panel. Nevertheless, in perhaps a less than optimistic tone, DeRoy said “it’s not a dead thing yet.”

Give it some CPR, folks. It’s an idea that deserves to live, not just for the sake of good governance, but for the residents of Atlantic Beach doomed to live with leaders that simply can’t get their act together.

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