SC will spend $62 million to break up SCDHEC

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David Hucks
David Huckshttps://myrtlebeachsc.com
David Hucks is a 12th generation descendant of the area we now call Myrtle Beach, S.C. David attended Coastal Carolina University and like most of his family, has never left the area. David is the lead journalist at MyrtleBeachSC.com

New data shows $62 million to break up SCDHEC

South Carolina anticipates allocating a minimum of $62 million to separate SCDHEC into the state’s combined public health and environmental agency and relocate employees to different locations.

Lawmakers approved a bill in May to divide the large Department of Health and Environmental Control into two separate entities this summer. Now, it is time to cover the costs of this action.

According to the S.C. House budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year, $32 million will be allocated to fund the separation of the Department of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Services. The majority of this funding will be used for information technology to protect personal and sensitive information, as well as for adapting the new offices. Some of the expenses will go towards new signs and rebranding efforts.

Exactly how that breaks down is unclear.

Furthermore, the state is considering investing $30 million next year to relocate numerous employees from various health-related agencies in downtown Columbia to newer offices on a campus where Dominion Energy‘s South Carolina offices are currently located.

According to the proposal in the House budget, beginning in 2025-26, the state will spend $15 million each year to rent the new offices and $10 million each year to maintain the operations of the agencies separately.

Spending fights

The House GOP infighting on Tuesday was caused by the relocation of the agencies.

Legislators from the resident focused House Freedom Caucus attempted to redirect all funding for the relocation project from the budget, but all their efforts were unsuccessful.

Not one member of the Freedom Caucus sits as head of any committee assignments in S.C.

Lawmakers included a provision in the state budget last year that required agencies to be moved from the Bull Street District in Columbia to the utility campus in Cayce.

The campus will be the location for the state offices that offer assistance to individuals with disabilities, mental health concerns, and substance abuse issues, as well as the newly established public health department.

These four agencies are also involved in a different initiative that the Freedom Caucus is against, which aims to merge six of the state’s health-related agencies into a single large agency.

Rep. Jordan Pace, a Republican from Goose Creek, made several budget amendments to cut funding for the relocation. He expressed a preference for using the money to renovate existing state-owned buildings. His main worry was that the state planned to lease the new buildings instead of purchasing them outright, while still being responsible for any maintenance costs under $100,000.

Pace commented that this is a poor financial choice.

On Thursday, January 11, 2024, in Columbia, South Carolina, Rep. Joe White from Prosperity had a discussion with Rep. Kathy Landing from Mount Pleasant on the House floor.

Representative Joe White, a Republican from Newberry, mentioned that Bill Stern, a prominent political contributor and organizer of Governor Henry McMaster’s 2023 inauguration events, will be the one to manage the lease for the property.

White raised concerns about potential wrongdoing in awarding Stern the contract, particularly because the developer had previously secured a $133 million contract to construct offices for the departments of Natural Resources and Education at the State Farmers Market in Lexington County in 2022.

Representative Bill Herbkersman, who heads the health care subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, justified that the Dominion campus was the most financially viable choice available.

The Bluffton Republican stated that it was the most favorable agreement.

Herbkersman highlighted a potential savings of around $161 million in the next 20 years, as reported by the state Cabinet agency responsible for managing all state properties. This figure signifies the funds that would be saved by not investing in the upkeep of the deteriorating state-owned buildings.

However, according to the state Department of Administration, relocating will result in a cost of $496 million for the state over the span of two decades. This is significantly higher, approximately $335 million more, than what would have been spent on maintaining the agencies in their current locations. These costs are on top of the necessary $62 million to break up SCDHEC.

The figures mentioned also represent a contract to relocate the new environmental agency to offices in the northwest that are owned by Colonial Life insurance company. However, this deal did not work out as planned in November, prompting the Department of Administration to search for a new location that has not yet been decided on.

In terms of relocating the public health agency, there are at least two factors that drive up the expenses.

One important area within the agency is the vital records departments, which house sensitive documents like birth certificates that require special storage conditions to protect them from fires. During a panel discussion on Tuesday, the Department of Health and Environmental Control was emphasized by Director Dr. Edward Simmer, who noted the need for fire protection systems that do not use water. This discussion was timely as budget deliberations were taking place in the House.

He stated that the majority of the expenses for dividing the agency are due to IT, specifically the need for enhanced security measures to safeguard the sensitive health data of South Carolinians at the public health agency.

Edward Simmer
Edward Simmer, DHEC HEAD – $62 million to break up SCDHEC

Simmer explained that after five decades, our IT systems have become closely connected. This has led to the creation of distinct networks, separate websites, and the need for additional licenses for many software products.

In addition to the expenses associated with the separation, the agencies that are about to be split also require $5.4 million for upgrades to their outdated IT systems, some of which date back 50 years.

In the environmental agency’s budget proposal, $3 million is allocated for salary increases, bonuses for good performance, and training to retain employees in the understaffed agency. Additionally, $5 million is set aside for cleaning up hazardous waste and planning for water quality.

House lawmakers did not include certain agency requests in their proposal which aimed to enhance public health services. These requests included funding for a mobile health clinic to offer prenatal care to expectant mothers in rural regions, as well as additional funds for nursing home inspectors.

The $62 million to break up SCDHEC is needed, many say, because the agency has become an over arching bureaucracy with entirely too much power.

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