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Sandy Island: Passenger ferry plan starts search for funds
By Jackie R. Broach
A bill to allow the Sandy Island school boat to double as a passenger ferry has run aground in the state Senate.
“The bill unfortunately will not go forward for a while,” said Sen. Ray Cleary. “There are a lot of issues and concerns with it.”
The bill passed in the House last week, but was sent to the Senate Education Committee to resolve questions of funding and liability.
The measure would amend state law to allow Sandy Island residents to use the school boat, which is owned by the state Department of Education. The existing law allows anyone 55 or older to use the boat when space is available on its scheduled trips.
State Reps. Vida Miller and Carl Anderson introduced the amendment last month after three Sandy Island residents drowned when their boat sank as they made their way home. Expanding service for passengers is estimated to cost $15,000 a year.
The bill drew criticism from Georgetown County School District officials this week, because the law says “other trips” approved by the district will be paid by the district. Critics call it an unfunded mandate.
“Well, it’s definitely unfunded,” said Miller. But it’s not a mandate and the school district won’t be asked to pay for trips the boat makes as a ferry, she said.
“It’s strictly an option,” she said. “If the money is not available from private sources or whatever it may be that’s available, then it does not happen.”
Miller said the definition of “other trips” is open to interpretation.
“It depends on who you talk to, but I do know the S.C. Department of Education did not interpret it as an expense for the school district and never would have drafted language that would require the school district to pay,” Miller said.
Working on what she called “one of the worst budgets we’ve ever had,” Miller said she’s aware of the district’s financial constraints.
Sandy Island is accessible only by boat, and residents have been asking for a safer means of transportation for years. Families living on the island currently travel by small boats to the Waccamaw Neck.
Regardless of what Miller’s intentions were, Cleary said the way the law is worded the school district pays for additional trips.
School officials say that’s not what they agreed to.
“We’re sympathetic to the need for secure transportation, but our concern is the expense,” said School Board Chairman Jim Dumm. “We’re scraping for every dollar we can get now.”
There’s also a concern about liability for passengers, he said.
If a non-student does use the boat under the current law, Dumm said he’s “almost sure they would have to sign a waiver.”
“We’d love to be able to work something out where there wouldn’t be an added cost or added liability for the district,” Dumm said.
The bill is “not necessarily dead,” Cleary said, “but the last thing I want to do is put an unfunded mandate on the school district.”
“It’s not what anybody intended, but it can be fixed,” Miller said.
Cleary believes transportation to the island should be an issue for the county rather than the state.
County Council members said this week they would be willing to fund the expanded service. “I’m sure there’s something we could do,” Administrator Sel Hemingway said.