As the time for Camden City Council to approve the city’s proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 budget draws closer, pleas from retired city employees continue to express their worries about their insurance benefits being cut.

At council’s Tuesday evening meeting, three people once again implored the city to leave benefits promised to them years ago alone.

Linda Truesdale, whose late husband worked for the city of Camden for 30 years, said when her husband passed away from cancer in 2015, “it was that promise, that we had health insurance on him and on me for my lifetime that he mentioned to me so many times. On his deathbed, he looked at me and smiled said, ‘You are covered with health insurance and I’m so proud I was able to give you that.’ ”

Truesdale asked council to “not forget the employees who made the city what it is today. Those people, my husband included, worked for 30 years … so dedicated … I guess what I’m saying is, when you take trust away from people and go back on your word … it’s a very difficult situation to have to swallow that. I hope you’ll find it in your hearts to do the right thing by not only those who worked for this city and have passed but also all of those who are left here.”

Jerry Price, a retired Camden Fire Department employee, told council he is “baffled that I’m still up here begging for something that was promised when we left (the city).”

For the past several months, retirees have expressed concerns during public comment about the possibility that the city might be considering cutting retirees’ insurance benefits in the wake of budgetary problems caused by the dramatic increase in natural gas prices which impacted the city’s reserve funds as well as soaring increases in the cost of health insurance for employees.

After Tuesday’s meeting, city manager Jon Rorie said he is proposing that the city discontinue paying for retirees’ insurance and instead give $250 a month to both the retired employee and spouse (for a combined $500) to help purchase supplemental insurance. Rorie said there are currently 74 retired city employees who would be affected.

We have experienced a double digit increase in the overall cost for health insurance for ‘all’ our former and current employees,” Rorie told the C-I. “As we look toward the future, we need to balance our overall revenues and expenses to effectively allocate resources to best serve all of our residents.”

Tuesday’s meeting also saw May 17 proclaimed as Cleveland School Fire Day.

“As I was reading this proclamation, it just gave me chills to think about that day,” Drakeford said. “With the support of (our fire personnel) it’s something that we will never have to endure again in Kershaw County.”

The Cleveland School, constructed around 1908-09, was a two-story, wooden structure that enrolled all grade levels. On May 17, 1923, during the annual graduation program, a fire broke out in the assembly area on the second floor where 300 people had gathered to see Topsy Turvey, the end of the school year play.

The fire began after a lamp fell from a wall, spilling its flammable contents on the stage and spreading quickly throughout the room. In all, 77 children and adults lost their lives on that terrible day. Identifying the bodies was difficult and 67 were never identified. They were buried together in a mass grave a mile away from the Cleveland School at Beulah Methodist Church Cemetery.

“In memory of those who lost their lives in the Cleveland School Fire almost 100 years ago, we proclaim May 17, 2023, as Cleveland School Fire Day, to honor the memory of the young lives that ended too soon,” Drakeford said.

Camden City Fire Chief John Bowers said a recognition service will be held at the memorial, 410 Cleveland School Road, on Wednesday, May 17. The remembrance is a collaboration between Lugoff, Kershaw County, and Camden Fire fire departments; the S.C. Firefighters Association; and Beulah Church.

“This was a tragedy and the largest loss of life event in South Carolina’s history,” Bowers said. “It happened right here in our community but when you walk around town and talk to people about it, most don’t know anything about it, which is sad. We feel compelled to try to keep that memory alive.”

Eddie Gardner with Camden’s fire department said his grandmother was a survivor of the Cleveland School fire.

“She lost a brother and a sister in the fire,” he said. “So I have a family connection to the fire.”

Carter Jones with the S.C. Firefighters Association thanked the city of Camden for the proclamation and recognition. “This is going to be a big event,” he said. “We’ve gotten word that the deputy director of the U.S. Fire Administration will be here as well as a representative with the National Fire Protection Association and other dignitaries from around the country.”

In addition, Jones said PBS is planning a one-hour documentary on the Cleveland School Fire that should be aired sometime next year.

(For more on the Cleveland School Fire and the upcoming ceremonies, see Editor Martin L. Cahn’s accompanying Page A1 feature story.)

Also Tuesday, council also gave first reading of an ordinance approving an application for a special property tax assessment for a historic property.

According to attachments with council’s agenda, the owner of 310 Hampton Park in Camden, known by historians as the Dr. Samuel Brasington House, recently applied for a Bailey Bill special tax assessment as he looks to upgrade the facility and its grounds in an effort to “grow and sustain” its success.

In other business, council:

• Recognized the state champion Camden High School girls basketball team along with Head Coach Natalie Norris, assistant coaches Cassandra Summers, Lewis Mungo and Sharneece Gary, along with parents, faculty and the entire CHS student body. “All were integral in guiding the team to victory through their unwavering support,” Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford said.

• Proclaimed May 20 as Kids to Parks Day.

• Proclaimed council and the city’s support of the Move with the Mayor initiative.

• Gave second reading of an ordinance approving an application for a special property assessment a historic property (1115 Broad St.).

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