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Budgets: County wants to avoid rollback in pay to 2010 levels

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

There are still a lot of uncertainties in Georgetown County’s 2013 budget, currently in the works, but officials want it to include a pay increase for employees.

“That’s our objective,” said County Administrator Sel Hemingway, noting rising fuel prices and higher personal living costs folks are facing today, in many cases without the benefit of increasing wages.

County employees haven’t seen an annual raise in three years, since County Council approved a 3-percent pay cut for all employees and put cost of living increases on hold to help balance the 2010 budget. Employees received a one-time bonus of 3 percent last year, but the county wasn’t confident enough of an economic recovery to commit to reinstating annual raises.

That hasn’t changed.

If a salary increase gets worked into the budget, it will likely be another one-time supplement, allowing county employees to maintain last year’s income instead of reverting back to 2010 levels.

“We were hoping the supplement last year would be a step toward recovery and moving back into normal times when we looked at cost of living increases, but due to circumstances, we aren’t to that point yet,” Hemingway said.

Among those circumstances, the state hasn’t indicated it has fully recovered, which affects the county’s revenue, he said. The county is still waiting to find out how much it will receive in local government funds from the state, which could have a big impact on the budget.

Ideas about the fund circulating through the legislature range from eliminating it completely, which would cost Georgetown County $1.8 million, to restoring full funding, which would give the county $740,000 in new revenue.

The county also faces rising costs for fuel and employee benefits. Health insurance premiums will increase by $71,000 and state retirement plan premiums by $173,000.

The good news is economic indicators – including building permits, real estate recording fees and documentary stamps, accommodations tax revenue and vehicle taxes – show slow but steady improvement.

But “right now, I just don’t have a basis of assurance that says we’re going to be out of the woods, and I don’t feel comfortable reinstating something that’s recurring in nature and committed beyond this coming year,” Hemingway said. “We’re still looking for that day we have a comfort level that a recurring stream of revenue can support a longer-range commitment.”

The chairman of the Midway Fire District board pleaded with County Council last month to fund a “substantial wage increase for the county’s first responders” in the upcoming budget. He said starting salaries at Midway are about $4,250 below the average pay in other departments in the region and contribute to a high turnover rate, which comes with high costs.

The sheriff’s office recently made a similar, though less public, argument. It reported it is 11th out of 12 area law enforcement agencies surveyed about average starting salary for non-certified officers. The average is $30,346, compared to $26,736 in Georgetown County.

The employee bonuses cost the county about $760,000 out of its $62.6 million 2012 budget.

County Council is expected to get its first look at a draft of the new budget on April 24. Hemingway gave council members a report on the budget process this week so they would be aware ahead of time of the challenges that could lie ahead.

“There are a lot of uncertainties,” he said.

However, he told council, he fully expects to be able to present them with a balanced budget that does not include a tax increase and maintains the current level of services.

A budget work session for council is tentatively scheduled for May 1, with a public hearing of the budget and second reading following on May 22.

Adoption of the budget is slated for June 12.

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