York County officials refuse to release museum foundation settlement offer

adouglas@heraldonline.comJune 26, 2013 

York County officials refused Wednesday to release details of a proposal offered this week that they say would avoid a lawsuit against the county museum foundation.

The County Council voted Tuesday night to set a Friday deadline for the Culture and Heritage Foundation to accept the offer. The proposal was supposed to be delivered to the foundation by 5 p.m. Wednesday, said council Chairman Britt Blackwell and Councilman Bump Roddey.

If the proposal isn’t accepted by Friday, the county plans to sue.

At issue is the foundation’s decision to change its focus away from solely supporting York County’s museums. The foundation wants to support other educational, cultural and historical opportunities for South Carolina residents.

County leaders want an accounting of the foundation’s assets and spending. Among the assets are 340 acres of land donated in 1998 by Jane Spratt McColl.

Blackwell and Roddey said they could not release the proposal’s details because County Attorney Michael Kendree told them not to. Kendree said details should not be released because negotiations are ongoing, according to Blackwell.

Kendree did not respond to an e-mail or phone call from The Herald.

Foundation board Chair Bill Easley did not comment on whether the proposed agreement had been received. He said he’s withholding further comment on the dispute and the proposed settlement agreement.

Blackwell said the county’s proposal is “amiable” and he hopes the foundation will accept the terms so that each side can move forward.

“Nobody wins with a lawsuit,” he said.

Council members said they face a Friday deadline to file suit against the foundation, which changed its statement of purpose last May. There is a “window of several months” to sue to challenge the foundation’s change, Blackwell said.

Roddey said “it’s a lose-lose situation in the courtroom financially” if York County and the foundation take their battle to court.

“A large sum of money” would be spent on lawyers--possibly as much as $250,000, he said.

He acknowledged that taxpayers would foot the legal battle bill on York County’s side. The foundation would likely have to use donated money to fight the lawsuit.

Those donations could be used for York County’s museums, he said, rather than hiring a lawyer to defend the foundation.

County records show that the foundation contributed about $51,000 to the museums in the 2012-2013 fiscal year. About $13,000 was contributed in the previous fiscal year.

The spike in contributions during the 2013 fiscal year was caused by the final installment of a $250,000 pledge, according to county Finance Director Beth Latham.

The museum budget for the fiscal year that begins Monday is about $4 million. In the fiscal year that ends Sunday, the museum’s budget was $4.9 million, which included some capital projects.

On the foundation’s tax return from 2011 - the most recent filing available to the public - the foundation reported more than $4 million in revenue.

Easley declined to say how much money the foundation took in during 2012.

The county wants the foundation to turn over financial records showing assets and spending, council members said Tuesday night following a three-hour closed-door meeting in Rock Hill. After the meeting, council members voted unanimously to seek legal action if the proposed settlement is not accepted.

The foundation has proposed asking the Foundation For the Carolinas based in Charlotte to manage all assets targeted for the York County museums. The Foundation for the Carolinas is a philanthropic and financial services organization serving 13 counties in North and South Carolina, according to its website.

During its closed-door meeting Tuesday night, the County Council met with two representatives from the Foundation For The Carolinas. Also invited into the County Council’s executive session were David Plexico, chairman of the commission that oversees York County’s museums, and museum Executive Director Carey Tilley.

When the council opened the meeting again, Councilman Chad Williams stressed that a lawsuit against the foundation is a “last resort.”

In a statement sent to The Herald on Tuesday night, Easley said a partnership with the Foundation for the Carolinas would “set the right tone going forward” in regard to how donated land and money for the museums is used.

York County officials and the Culture and Heritage Foundation have squabbled for several years about the foundation’s spending and assets. The primary issue has been the land donated by McColl.

Spratt initially donated about 400 acres. The foundation had reached an agreement with a North Carolina developer to build a residential and commercial project on the land, located near Interstate 77 and Sutton Road in the Fort Mill area. But the deal fell through, and a foundation subsidiary had to repay the developer $3.8 million.

The foundation sold some of the land to Carolinas Healthcare System and the Fort Mill school district.

Officials still expect about 60 acres of the land to be used for a new public museum, Easley said.

Other plans for the land include dedicating some to conservation, providing right of way to the Carolina Thread Trail along the riverfront and developing some of the property to exclusively benefit the museums, Easley wrote in his statement Tuesday night.

Anna Douglas •  803-329-4068

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