There is a $78 million difference between how much Aiken County would receive in the plans of the South Carolina Senate and South Carolina House of Representatives for allocating the state’s plutonium settlement money.
Both chambers of the South Carolina General Assembly incorporated plans to spend the remaining $525 million of the money the federal government agreed to pay after failing to build the Mixed-Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility at the Savannah River Site or remove the plutonium stored at the site that was to be used in the facility.
Because the budgets and the plans are different, a conference committee of three senators, Senate President Thomas Alexander, Senate Minority Leader Nikki Setzler and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Harvey Peeler, and three representatives, House Speaker Murrell Smith, House Majority Leader Gary Simrill and Minority Leader Todd Rutherford, will meet at 2 p.m. Tuesday to work on creating a compromise between the two versions.
The Senate budget would provide $206.75 million to 20 projects in Aiken County, or 39.4% of the $525 million. The House budget would provide nearly $128.58 million, 24.5% of the total, to 13 projects in Aiken County.
S.C. Sen. Tom Young, R-Aiken, said ideally the conference committee would decide to use the Senate spending plan. He added that if the committee didn’t use the Senate plan, he would like it to be as close to that plan as possible.
Nine projects are funded in the Senate budget but not the House budget including an Aiken County Law Enforcement Center ($20 million), a nursing school building at Aiken Technical College ($11.5 million) and upgrades at the Horse Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant ($10 million).
S.C. Rep. Melissa Oremus, R-Graniteville, said she had called a lot of people over the nursing school building. She said it was badly needed to address a shortage of nurses and to offer students an option other than USC Aiken.
S.C. Rep. Bart Blackwell, R-Aiken, said all the projects listed in each budget were important but added the nursing school had attracted a lot of community attention along the potential law enforcement center.
Two projects are funded in the House budget but not the Senate budget: improvements to Aiken’s Generations Park ($1.2 million) and facility renovations at the Aiken Railroad Museum ($900,000).
Three projects are funded in both budgets but at different amounts.
The House budget calls for nearly $22.98 million to go to Aiken County Public School District to help build a new career and technology center at Aiken Technical College. The Senate budget allocates $30 million.
The new career and technology center is also one of the projects included in the Aiken County Public School District’s penny sales tax and so funding will also be provided through the sales tax.
Aiken County Public School District Superintendent King Laurence said at the Aiken Chamber of Commerce First Friday event in April that he and Aiken Tech President Dr. Forest Mahan had been talking about the potential for a new career and technical center on the Aiken Tech campus for a long time.
“We’re excited to see it getting closer and closer,” he said.
The House budget provides $20 million to the Aiken for downtown and Northside redevelopment compared to $25 million in the Senate plan.
The House budget calls for the New Savannah Bluff Lock and Dam project to receive $15 million compared to $20 million in the Senate version.
South Carolina, Georgia and the Army Corps of Engineers remain locked in a court battle over the dam project. In essence, South Carolina and Georgia are arguing for the dam and the Corps is arguing that it isn’t necessary.
Eight projects are funded at the same levels in both budgets:
• Offsite infrastructure for the Savannah River National Laboratory ($20 million);
• A cyber command building in North Augusta ($15 million);
• National Guard Dreamport at USC Aiken ($10 million);
• An industrial park project in eastern Aiken County ($10 million);
• An Aiken Rural Health Services building ($6 million);
• A water line along S.C. Highway 39 with elevated water tanks ($4 million); and
• A regional solid waste transfer station in North Augusta ($2 million).
Fort Gordon in nearby Augusta became the site of the Army Cyber Command two years ago and has added 9,000 people over the past eight years according to Tom Clark, executive director of the Alliance for Fort Gordon.
North Augusta Administrator Jim Clifford said at the quarterly luncheon of the North Augusta Chamber of Commerce in May that the city is working to attract businesses to compliment the new cyber command.
“We’re trying to advocate for cyber and cyber businesses to be here in North Augusta. Georgia really got out of the gate quickly with the Georgia Cyber Center,” Clifford said. “I think there’s still opportunities out there to be had, and if those opportunities are there, I want them to be here and not in Columbia County or Richmond County, I want them to be here in the city of North Augusta.”
The Dreamport is also connected to the cyber center.
Maj. Gen. Brad Owens said in January that the center will be a portal into the state’s cyber enterprise. In an earlier interview with the Aiken Standard, he said the Dreamport could make Aiken and Augusta a cyber hotbed.
“You’re bringing world-class talent together in a collaborative way that nobody else can compete with,” the general said in October 2021. “It’s all going to converge right here.”
S.C. Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, told the Post and Courier North Augusta earlier this year that he applauded the inclusion of the industrial park in the spending plans.
“Eastern Aiken County needs that sort of development to create jobs in that part,” he said. “This is the opportunity to fund that.”
In both the Senate and House budgets, Barnwell County receives $110 million.
The Senate budget allocates all $110 million for the construction of a consolidated Williston and Blackville High School and a career and technology center at the site.
The House budget allocates $105 million to that project but leaves $5 million for multipurpose buildings for the county, Blackville and Williston.
The Senate budget sends $24.5 million to Allendale County while the House budget sends $19.5 million.
Both plans allocate $15 million for capital improvements at Allendale High School. They also fund a community center but at different amounts. In the Senate budget, the center receives $2 million. In the House budget it receives $4.5 million.
The Senate budget includes $5 million for industrial site development and $2.5 million for law enforcement center upgrades. The House budget does not fund these projects.
Indirectly Impacted Counties
With the exception of Edgefield County, the Senate budget is also kinder to the counties that are not directly impacted by the site but are adjacent to it.
The House budget calls for five Edgefield County projects to receive a combined $31.8 million: a law enforcement center ($18 million), an advanced manufacturing center at Piedmont Technical College ($10 million), workforce improvement and training at Edgefield County Schools ($1.6 million), renovation and construction at Bettis Academy ($1.2 million) and an athletic complex at Fox Creek High School ($1 million).
S.C. Rep. Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, who represents part of Edgefield County, said it was the county of residence for the second-largest number of Savannah River Site employees. He said he had received a letter from the county government advocating for the law enforcement center so that was what he advocated for.
The Senate budget funds three of the five projects at lower amounts. The law enforcement center receives $8.6 million instead of $18 million, Edgefield County Schools receives $500,000 instead of $1.6 million for workforce development and training, and the Fox Creek athletic complex receives $500,000 instead of $1 million.
Hixon said the citizens of Edgefield County were concerned about the law enforcement center in Edgefield County because it was very outdated.
“We were trying to get most of it paid for,” Hixon said. “If the county can’t get the $18 million, the county’s going to have to bond it to finance it and so our taxes could possibly go up and no one likes that.”
The Senate budget also funds one project at a higher amount. The advanced manufacturing center at Piedmont Technical College receives $12 million instead of $10 million.
“I did not advocate for the funding for Piedmont Tech because the people from Piedmont Tech never contacted me,” Hixon said. “I was a little amazed with that $12 million that was in there.”
The Senate budget does not fund one project included in the House budget: the Bettis Academy improvements.
Bamberg County is the only other county to receive money in the House budget. The House budget allocates $5 million for a school facilities bond reduction. The Senate budget doesn’t include the bond reduction but does allocate $4 million for a spec building and $2.3 million for airport improvements.
The Senate budget funds approximately $19.6 million for projects in Colleton, Hampton, Lexington, Orangeburg and Saluda counties. The House version does not include these projects.
The rest of the state
Both the House and Senate budgets allocate money to areas neither directly or indirectly impacted by the Savannah River Site.
Taylor said including the other counties of the state was a political necessity.
The House budget allocates $223.1 million to an intermodal facility and infrastructure at the Charleston Navy Base.
Taylor said he didn’t think the other parts of the state should receive this much from the settlement.
The Senate budget sends $131.3 million to the county transportation committees of the 43 counties not directly impacted by the site for road projects to be proposed and approved.
Taylor called the Senate plan more reasonable.
Oremus also said she understood that some money had to go to other parts of the state and that the delegation has worked hard to make sure Aiken County gets its fair share of the settlement funds.
Once the conference committee creates the compromise version of the state budget, both chambers will be called back to approve the plan.
Both chambers are set to return on June 15.
From there, it will go to Gov. Henry McMaster for a signature or a veto.
McMaster typically signs the budget but uses a line-item veto to remove specific projects from it. The House and Senate then meet again and usually override those vetoes.