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Pawleys Island: Town ballot on utility project won’t ID voters

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Postcard ballots will go out to owners of 415 properties on Pawleys Island in an advisory referendum this month on a $4.2 million project to bury electric and cable television lines. The town will trust them not to try to stuff the ballot box.

Town Council supports the project and approved $68,000 to start engineering and right-of-way acquisition for the first phase of the project. But the council wants to get support of at least 70 percent of the property owners. A similar referendum several years ago found 64 percent supported moving power and cable lines underground and council decided against the project.

Since then, owners of 47 homes along Myrtle Avenue developed a project to bury the utility lines with the towns support. It was completed in 2011. Town Council proposes doing the same for the rest of the island over the next five years.

It commissioned a brochure from Brandon Advertising to explain the project and its costs. That will be mailed along with a stamped, self-addressed postcard that asks for a vote for or against the plan.

The postcards were going to have the owner’s return address, but Council Member Mike Adams questioned whether that was ethical. “Shouldn’t it be a secret ballot?” he asked.

Council Member Howard Ward said there needed to be some way to make sure people don’t vote more than once.

“I think what you’ll get is a non-response” if voters think they will be identified, Council Member Sarah Zimmerman said. She thought that would suppress votes against the project.

What if the vote is more than 100 percent, Ward asked.

“Then you have to lick the cat over again,” Mayor Bill Otis said.

Ryan Fabbri, the town’s assistant administrator, suggested using a numbering system. Police Chief Mike Fanning said the numbers could be assigned at random so they couldn’t be traced.

Council Member Glennie Tarbox said that would work. Adams agreed.

But Zimmerman said any marking on the ballot would create the perception that the voter’s choice was being monitored. Adams also agreed.

So with Adams and Zimmerman opposed to numbered ballots and Tarbox and Ward in favor, eyes turned toward Otis.

“Our history has been that we don’t reprise” against dissenters, Otis said. “Our last-15-year history.”

He voted to send out the ballots unmarked anyway. “If it keeps anybody from not returning a card for any reason, it’s not good,” he said of the numbering idea. Too much time and effort has gone into the utility project to do anything to diminish input from property owners, he said.

The project will be the biggest undertaking by the town, which was formed in 1985. It will fund $2.5 million of the project cost. Property owners will pay $350 a year over 10 years to cover the balance. (They can also pay $3,380 up front.) The town is responsible for any shortfall from individuals.

Santee Cooper, the state-owned electric utility, will manage the project. The first phase will include installing a second supply line to the island. Power currently comes over the South Causeway. A line over the North Causeway will create redundancy, which Santee Cooper says is needed.

The brochure that will accompany the ballots include illustrations of what the streets will look like with the power lines removed. It cites the benefits to reliability and safety. The only possible negative point addressed is that property owners will have the additional cost of paying an electrician to connect houses to the new system. That’s estimated at about $500.

“It’s really what we need to get the word out,” said Guerry Green, who chairs the committee that prepared the underground wire project. “You could say sell them on the concept. I guess validate is a better word.”

The ballots must be received by March 1. Council will make a final decision on the project March 10.

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