Leaders from across Aiken County discussed a variety of issues Thursday night during the inaugural Aiken County Municipal Forum.
The event was held at the Aiken County Government Center.
Aiken County Council Chairman Gary Bunker opened the event and provided introductory remarks.
Among the topics addressed were the capital projects sales tax, a fourth round of which was approved in 2018; water and sewer system improvements; police and public safety; and the overall financial health of the towns and cities.
Aiken Mayor Rick Osbon spent his speaking time highlighting the city's many projects: waterline and roads upgrades; the prospective Powderhouse Connector, which would take traffic off Whiskey Road; the future of Generations Park on the Northside; and the new Department of Public Safety complex along Beaufort Street.
“It really is a team effort,” Osbon said, thanking members of the Aiken City Council.
North Augusta Mayor Bob Pettit spoke about the economic development of North Augusta and said there is "plenty of opportunity" in the city, referencing downtown, Exit 1 and Exit 5 off Interstate 20.
He spoke about the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam, and the replacement project the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is working on. He mentioned the Corps' preferred alternative to the lock and dam, and said it threatens North Augusta's riverfront and Riverside Village.
He also mentioned the influx of people that may come with the cyber work at Fort Gordon in Augusta, and North Augusta's ability to facilitate those contractors and workers.
Burnettown Mayor Jonathan Dicks provided an update on what was happening in his municipality.
“We’ve got a bunch of projects going on,” he said. “They’re small compared to some others (in the county), but we’re staying busy.”
Those efforts include the refurbishment of Burnettown’s water tank.
In addition, “we’re renovating our ball field,” Dicks said.
Improvements will include a walking track, a concession stand and batting cages.
For Jackson Mayor Todd Etheredge, maintaining his municipality’s volunteer fire department is a major challenge.
“It is harder and harder for small towns with volunteer fire departments, especially during the daytime when people are working,” he said. “It’s harder to get the volunteers needed to get trucks and the necessary equipment to a fire. It’s nothing to spend $400,000 or $500,000 on a fire truck, and we just don’t have the money. I don’t know how much longer we are going to survive.”
In some good news for Jackson, Etheredge said the municipality had received a $500,000 grant to upgrade its water lines.
Etheredge also reported that Jackson has a new police chief, Kevin Liles, who will replace Dennis Rushton, who died last fall. Liles was the chief of police at USC Aiken.
New Ellenton Mayor Vernon Dunbar talked about multiple efforts to make improvements in his municipality.
He said New Ellenton was preparing to upgrade its comprehensive plan and that a grant from the South Carolina Department of Transportation would be used put in some sidewalks on Main Street.
In addition, New Ellenton is getting ready to upgrade the football field behind the New Ellenton Middle STEAM Magnet School.
“We just finished up phase one of our community development revitalization program,” Dunbar said.
“Our fire department is planning to build a new substation near Cedar Creek,” he added.
Perry Mayor Tom Williams reported that in his area there is a problem with big trucks traveling between Interstates 20 and 26.
“Somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 trucks a day come through there,” he said. “It’s very dangerous. We’ve had accidents there when there have been as many as three people killed at one time.”
On a more positive note, Williams said Perry recently had received a gift of 40 acres of property with three ponds and a clubhouse that residents will be able to use for fishing and other recreational activities.
Windsor Mayor Michael Dunbar reported that a lot of work was being done at his municipality’s park.
The basketball court is being upgraded and so is some of the playground equipment.
“We’re just a small town wanting to grow like the bigger towns,” Dunbar said. “We don’t have sewers, water systems and all that, but we’re striving to get there one day.”
S.C. Sen. Tom Young
State Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, provided an overview of the Legislature, reminding the crowd that state-level work is often a marathon, not a sprint.
One of the major issues the Legislature will face this year is "energy policy," Young said, referencing the failed V.C. Summer venture, the recent Dominion Energy merger and the future of state-owned utility Santee Cooper. The senator also mentioned solar energy, which he said he's a fan of.
Also on the mind of some lawmakers, Young continued, is access to internet in rural areas of the state. He described proper broadband access as a key issue for Aiken and Edgefield counties, among others.
It's a sentiment that S.C. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, R-Edgefield, has expressed, too.
Aiken County Sheriff
Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt – who was repeatedly thanked for his service and deputies – said an aggressive approach to narcotics and violent crime would be maintained going forward.
The sheriff also lauded what he called a special relationship with law enforcement throughout the county.
The Sheriff’s Office often works alongside the Aiken and North Augusta public safety departments. Deputies are also often dispatched to smaller towns throughout the county to help.
Solicitor Strom Thurmond Jr.
Aiken County solicitor Strom Thurmond Jr. said the solicitor's office had an "incredibly productive" 2018. Thurmond said there is no shortage of work, and said they have a front row seat to the methamphetamine and opioid epidemic. The solicitor also mentioned more people are carrying firearms to settle disputes.
Thurmond said that in 2018, the office moved more warrants than they took in, essentially that they moved more old cases than they took in new ones.
The Aiken Standard sponsored a reception that followed the municipal forum.