Greenville County Council meets in secret to plan spending $91M in federal COVID aid

Anna B. Mitchell
Greenville News

Greenville County has been sitting on more than $91 million in COVID-19-related federal aid since late April and has taken only minimal steps to get public input on a spending plan for the money that was developed by county staff behind closed doors.

On Wednesday, Greenville County Council Chairman Butch Kirven said he foresees no public hearings on the aid that came through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. He expects County Council will approve the staff-proposed spending plan in a single vote at some point in coming weeks. No date has been set, he said.

"We have gotten plenty of public input," he said.

Greenville County Council Member Butch Kirven speaks during a press conference about COVID-19 held at the Greenville Convention Center Friday, Mar. 27, 2020.

So far, County Council has reviewed the plan only during closed-door discussions among small groups of council members. Public input has included emails and calls from constituents directly to County Council members and the results of surveys circulated by the local United Way and business advocacy groups.

This process has circumvented public-notice requirements for government meetings.

It also stands in contrast to other communities receiving CARES Act aid. Cities and counties across the country have listed the aid on agendas in recent weeks for meetings attended by a wide array of individuals, business owners, non-profit organization leaders and service providers.

Similarly, Gov. Henry McMaster on Wednesday publicly submitted to the General Assembly his proposal for how an initial portion of the state's $1.9 billion in CARES Act money ought to be spent. Lawmakers are expected to begin planning that spending next week.

Previously:SC legislators may grab control of $1.9 billion in federal coronavirus aid

At stake is an amount of money equivalent to nearly half of Greenville County's annual operating budget and intended to help with unexpected costs, direct and indirect, that communities can tie to the coronavirus.

Greenville County was the only political subdivision in South Carolina with more than 500,000 residents to qualify for the CARES Act aid to local governments. The $91.3 million was delivered via electronic transfer in late April.

All the money must be spent by Dec. 31, according to federal guidelines.

County Council members push for more openness

In public comments at the close of two recent County Council meetings, council members Liz Seman and Lynn Ballard have asked questions about how the CARES Act spending plan is coming along. No details were provided during those meetings, which were open to the public via video-conferencing.

County staff instead shared details about the $91 million spending plan during a pair of closed-door meetings that took place on Wednesday. The Greenville News contacted four council members on Wednesday, and all of them — Seman, Ballard, Kirven and Ennis Fant — confirmed that two meetings had occurred with county staff by video conference that day, each with six council members invited. 

The meetings on Wednesday were not posted on the county's public calendar, and no one from the public or the media was provided access to attend..Meetings require public notice when a majority of members attend. County Council, which has 12 members, must notify the public when seven or more members will gather.

Similar small-group meetings on the CARES Act money also took place in early May. By meeting in small groups, members could troubleshoot ideas and ask questions, Kirven said at the time.

He also said there would be a public meeting to discuss the federal aid "in the next week or two." That never happened.

Ballard said he attended a meeting at 1 p.m. Wednesday. He said that with so much at stake he has urged Kirven to place the aid package on a meeting agenda of the full council so that it can be debated out in the open. Ballard does not head any committees for the council and so cannot convene such a meeting.

"Not that I've seen or done anything that was out of line or couldn't have been done in public or anything (in small-group meetings)," Ballard said. "It's the fact that it wasn't done in public. We are a public body. We are supposed to be a public body."

The Greenville News reached Seman shortly before the 2:30 p.m. small-group meeting of County Council.

Liz Seman of Greenville County Council during a meeting in January 2019.

"A few of us have asked in public sessions in our last couple meetings about it, but I'm getting ready to get on this call and hopefully the next step will be much more public- facing opportunity to share more broadly what the plan is," she said.

Ballard said he is opposed to small-group meetings in general because they enable the council to reach a consensus outside the public eye. 

File photo of Lynn Ballard during a Greenville County Council meeting January 22, 2019.

"How many true deliberations have you witnessed on council? Very few," he said. "And we are supposed to be a deliberative body — not come in and have everything settled and 'OK, sign at the cross and we're out of here.'"

Seman said a successful COVID-19 response will come down to partnerships with experienced nonprofit service providers.

"There are a lot of people who are doing the work and have expertise in this area," Seman said. "I also think it's important to see where CARES money has already been deployed in our community and what can we learn from that and where has it worked, where has it fallen short."

In nearby Guilford County, North Carolina, which received a similar sum in CARES Act funding, $93 million, elected leaders have had multiple public meetings about their spending plans, according to the Greensboro News & Record. This week Guilford County announced the latest in a multi-phase release of funds, this one to nonprofit groups. Similar stories have appeared in newspapers across the country, including since Tuesday in the Chicago Tribune, the Mountlake Terrace News in Washington state, and the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, West Virginia.

How can the CARES Act money be spent?

Federal guidelines issued in late April outline 22 possible uses for the money, and Greenville County has fixed on one of those for "the lion's share" of the $91 million: Grants to small businesses to reimburse the costs of business interruption caused by required closure. Kirven said the grants to small businesses would include nonprofit organizations and would be administered by CommunityWorks and a few area banks through an online application. Amounts, he said, would range from $5,000 to $10,000.

"We've got to shape up a procedure," he said.

Kirven reiterated Wednesday that council members do not want to pick "winners or losers" as they deliberate how to spend the $91 million.

The county does not yet have a draft of its plan ready to share with the public, Kirven said, adding that up to $5 million would set aside for a contingency fund. In an email later Wednesday evening, Kirven wrote that municipalities and the county would get some of the money for expenses directly related to coronavirus response, and some of the money would help with housing and utility assistance, homeless care and public health costs for vulnerable populations. The email did not specify amounts of money.

With details about Greenville County's COVID relief plan still uncertain, a broad collection of 35 Greenville-area nonprofits earlier this week issued their own proposal for how they thought the money could be spent. The group, which includes every prominent charity organization in the county, from Habitat for Humanity and Meals on Wheels to the Hollingsworth Funds and the Salvation Army, proposed in their so-called "OPEN" plan that the county spend:

  • 10% on disease prevention at public-facing businesses,
  • 10% on promoting businesses operating safely,
  • 40% to support low-wage workers needing help with childcare and transportation, 
  • and 30% to assist those most afflicted with COVID-related financial distress with housing, food and other essentials.

Katy Smith of the Greenville Partnership for Philanthropy helped draw up the OPEN plan with input from the United Way and the Nonprofit Alliance of Greenville. Calling $91 million "significant, transformative" money, she said she reviewed what other communities are doing around the country.

Asked whether she believes the county has listened to their proposal, she said she will not know until she sees the county's plan.

"We have definitely expressed our ideas," Smith said. "We hope there is a public process where the community can weigh in."

Seman said she supports the OPEN plan.

"The nonprofit sector in particular has really been meeting some essential needs," Seman said. "I'm hopeful the county staff has taken into account what they have heard from the community."

The chambers of commerce of Simpsonville, Mauldin, Greer, Greenville and Travelers Rest also signed on to the OPEN proposal. Jason Zacher, the Greenville chamber's senior vice president for business advocacy, said he has had individual discussions with county leaders about needs within the business community. He said the chamber wanted to help promote the OPEN plan to make sure the county is listening to the community and all its organizations, large and small.

"Those groups need assistance," Zacher said. "They are a critical part of the community's safety net."

Anna B. Mitchell covers growth and local government in Greenville County. You can follow her on Twitter @AnnaBard2U and on Facebook.