Originally created 12/22/99

Council wants review of farm agency needs



AIKEN - Expansion of Aiken County's Agricultural Services Building cleared another hurdle Tuesday night, but plans for the building might undergo some change.

Despite a recommendation by County Administrator Bill Shepherd to table the ordinance authorizing a $172,000 addition to the present agricultural services building on Richland Avenue, council moved the issue up to its third and final vote Jan. 18. Council, however, instructed Mr. Shepherd to look into how the agencies use current space and how they intend to use the addition.

"The initial space request includes questionable functions," Mr. Shepherd said, contending "there is a critical issue regarding funding. No funds in the current budget have been appropriated for the expansion."

It was a move strenuously objected to by Councilwoman Kathy Rawls, who proposed the expansion after the council blocked a plan Mr. Shepherd presented in September to consolidate a number of county offices -- including agricultural services -- in the old Kmart building on Richland Avenue.

Wherever they might be located -- local agricultural agencies prefer the eastern side of Aiken -- consolidation of all farm agencies under one roof must be done by September under a mandate by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Otherwise, agencies, including the Farm Service Agency, Soil and Water Conservation Service, the Rural Development Corporation, the Natural Resources Division and Clemson University Extension Service, risk being moved to another county, said Gibson Solomons, director of Farm Services.

"Area farmers would have to drive 30 or 40 miles to deal with matters that affect them," Mr. Solomons said.

"We provide a service to all of Aiken County," said the Rev. Tommy Knotts, an elected member of the Soil and Water Conservation Commission. "And I thought all this had been resolved. We've already talked about this. We need to help the citizens of the county, and we don't need to be hindered in this. Tabling the expansion would be a hindrance," he said.

Mrs. Rawls noted that the Agriculture Department brings money into Aiken County. She said when the matter was discussed in the council's development committee, which she chairs, no objections were raised.

Nevertheless, Mr. Shepherd insisted there was no money in the budget for the project.

"There is presently zero dollars to do any of this work. For the project to proceed, we have to identify sources for the money," he said.

Councilman Eddie Butler agreed the county needed to further scrutinize the request to guarantee an efficient use of money. But he said it could be done by the middle of next month, when the expansion ordinance is scheduled for the mandatory third vote.

"We need to look at the expansion closely. The $172,000 is not a lot compared to what we spend, but we have a moral obligation to look at it," he said.

Reach Pat Willis at (803) 279-6895.