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No tax increase expected in 2011 budget

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

As Georgetown County works on a budget for the coming fiscal year, the good news is that revenues aren’t expected to decrease.

But they aren’t expected to increase either, County Administrator Sel Hemingway said.

“The most optimistic estimate we have is a 1 percent increase,” he told County Council this week. They met to get a general idea of what to expect. A draft of the budget is due April 16.

Hemingway said he is “cautiously optimistic as we enter 2011.” He predicts the proposed budget will be similar to the current budget and won’t include a tax increase. However, he warned that decisions made by the state legislature could negatively impact the budget.

A repeal of the state law that reassesses real estate at its current value once it is sold could decrease revenue derived from property taxes, he said.

The amount of direct state funding for the county is also a concern as the legislature deals with falling revenue.

“Nobody is able to project what will happen with the local government fund and what the severity of that may be,” he said. “I don’t think it will surprise anybody if the local government fund again comes under attack.”

The county currently gets $2.4 million from the state.

Some expenditures are expected to increase in 2011, including health insurance and workers compensation premiums. Cuts will have to be made to cover those increases, Hemingway said. But council won’t have to make any major cuts, as they did last year.

In 2009, the county faced a $1.7 million deficit. Cuts made to balance the budget included a 3 percent pay cut for staff and the elimination of 28 jobs. The county ended with a $58 million budget — $3.1 million less than the year before.

The tough decisions council made last year have “proven to be the difference in being able to operate in these times and facing the difficult situations other jurisdictions are facing now,” Hemingway said. As for the current budget, the county seems to have been “right on target” with its projections.

“For three years now, we’ve been chasing a downward trend in revenues and it appears we finally forecast the right number this year,” Hemingway said.

Revenue from development activity, such as building permit fees, recording fees and documentary stamp fees for deeds and mortgages, started dropping off in 2006 and went into a steep decline in 2007, but they appear to be leveling off.

“We hope it has finally hit bottom and that’s a sign of recovery,” Hemingway said.

However, he doesn’t expect a rapid recovery and said the county won’t start to see an upturn in revenues until the 2012 fiscal year.

As of January, the county had collected about $218,000 in impact fees since they took effect in June, said Boyd Johnson, the county planning director. The capital plan called for $805,000 in the first year.

Those fees go to fund the county’s capital improvement plan. The county updated that plan and accompanying budget in October. Projected revenue for capital improvements decreased by about $25 million since council’s review of the $330 million plan in 2008.

The process council went through in that review was good practice for what will happen with the budget this spring, Hemingway said.

“We revisited and reforecast, and made the corresponding adjustments to keep the plan viable,” he said. “It’s similar to what we’re going to be seeing here.”

Council is scheduled to give first reading to the budget April 27, with a work session on May 4. A public hearing and second reading are scheduled May 25 and final reading is set for June 8.

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