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Budgets: Surplus in crosshairs after council sees proposed cutbacks

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Two weeks ago, Georgetown County Council members were reluctant to dip into cash reserves to plug a $1.7 million deficit in the county’s general fund budget.

If they used one-time funds for recurring expenses this year and didn’t cut spending, they’d run into the same problem again next year and the year after, County Administrator Sel Hemingway told them. That, he forecast, would lead to deficits of $8.2 million over the next five years, and eventually the reserves would be gone.

Council asked him to draft a list of ways to cut spending instead, and nothing was off limits, including layoffs and reduced hours for staff. Now, it looks like council may tap the county’s $9 million reserve after all.

Hemingway came back to council with a list of options on Tuesday, having trimmed the deficit to about $1.5 million in the $22.7 million general fund. He did that, he said, with another line-by-line review of the budget, which resulted in “a slight increase” in revenue and savings from measures such as renegotiating cellphone plans.

After reviewing the list of possible more significant cuts, council directed Hemingway to come up with a plan that would include spending cuts in conjunction with use of reserve funds, though only to a “minimal degree.”

“I think we want to proceed down the path of a hybrid approach,” Council Member Jerry Oakley said in a motion to that effect.

Council Member Glen O’Connell said the decision was “an attempt to be temperate and prudent, while doing what needs to be done and being fair to all parties.”

The “hybrid approach” would focus “primarily on cost reductions,” and staff cuts are still on the table.

“A large part of what we’ve got to deal with is continuing to look for ways to trim operating expenses,” Hemingway said. “There is going to have to be some reduction in personnel cost. We will continue to look at every option there.”

Reductions to staff and hours, along with furlough days, are being considered, but Hemingway said that’s just the tip of it.

“We’re looking beyond that,” he said. “We’re taking another look at existing vacancies we’ve budgeted and ways to potentially share employees between departments. If we have a surplus of people in one department and could really do without someone due to reduced work volume, we may look for opportunities to transfer staff instead of hiring.”

Departments associated with real estate transactions and building would likely be affected as declines in home sales and development have decreased their workload, Hemingway said. The stormwater department, however, needs more staff.

Council spent more than three hours in a closed door session with Hemingway and the county finance director discussing “personnel matters and how they may ultimately affect the budget.”

When they returned to open session, Council Chairman Johnny Morant said “some difficult decisions” will certainly have to be made in the process of balancing the budget and “council is prepared to make those difficult decisions.”

O’Connell agrees. Retired from the Boeing Company, he said he’s experienced in making difficult decisions regarding staffing.

“Obviously it’s a hardship for individuals when you [cut staff and hours] and you have to be sensitive and do everything you can to mitigate it,” O’Connell said. “On the other hand, a little cleansing sometimes is good for the organization.

“It has to be a balance of trying to retain people as much as you can, trying to make sure no one is suffering an unfair amount of pain compared to others and making sure you retain the ability of the organization to function,” he added.

The only two things council ruled out as options for filling the deficit were raising taxes and increasing the player fees for the recreational department’s sports leagues.

Tax increases haven’t been proposed, but Hemingway suggested Tuesday that council consider raising the $3 fee for league participation.

The fee doesn’t come close to covering the cost of the programs. Participants would have to pay $33 each to fully fund the recreation department’s four main programs — baseball, basketball, soccer and football.

Hemingway proposed raising the fee to $25 for those sports, putting the county in line with neighboring municipalities. That was projected to have raised about $81,000.

Council members rejected the idea, saying they didn’t want to price anyone out of participating, even though the county has “scholarships” for players who can’t afford the fee.

Hemingway also proposed a 25 percent increase in rental fees for parks and recreational facilities and equipment that would raise about $1,800. That’s still on the table.

The budget should be ready for second reading and a public hearing at council’s June 9 meeting, Hemingway said.

When council got its first look at the budget last month, there was a $3 million deficit.

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