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County budget: Finding operating funds in unlikely places

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Figures contained in the 2015-16 Georgetown County budget can be both deceptive and enlightening.

There are multi-million dollar swings in year-to-year spending in some capital expenditure areas while it appears the county is looking under the sofa cushions for spare change for operations.

For instance, spending is projected to be down by more than $2.8 million or 3.8 percent — from last fiscal year’s $74.2 million to this year’s $71.4 million. An examination of capital project funds from last year shows the county spent $6.5 million on road improvements and plans to spend just $1.8 million this year. Couple that $4.8 million decrease with a $1.3 million reduction in capital equipment replacement spending and the drop-off is more than accounted for.

County Administrator Sel Hemingway said the numbers demonstrate the uniqueness of governmental accounting and budgeting. The road improvement spending last year represented years of backlog being cleared up. The drop in capital equipment replacement spending comes after buying fire trucks last year and returning to normalcy this year.

A more telling trend of budget growth is operation figures, not capital expenditures. It will cost $2.4 million more to operate county government next year, according to the proposed budget. The cost will rise 4.5 percent to $54.9 million. Some of that increase comes from the adoption of a new county salary plan that will cost departments $659,000 more.

Salaries are projected to increase 5.4 percent from just under $10.5 million to $11 million while part-time pay is expected to drop by $91,400 and overtime by $6,000. Employee health insurance costs will be up 13.3 percent and state retirement contributions up 5.6 percent.

Library fines are projected to increase to $30,000 — 20 percent over the 2015 budgeted amount of $25,000. That’s a conservative estimate in light of the revised budget entry when library fines reached $38,000 in a year when the Waccamaw Neck Library was closed for six weeks while moving. The sheriff’s office is budgeting a $25,000 increase in traffic fines over last year’s budget number. There again, that figure is $35,000 less than traffic tickets actually produced last year. Delinquent property tax collections tell the same story: a 20 percent increase over the old budget but mirroring actual collections of $180,000 last year. It all reflects Hemingway’s philosophy: conservative budgeting to minimize risk of red ink.

The county benefitted greatly last year from falling gasoline prices, some departments saving as much as 25 percent. The sheriff’s office came in $130,000 under budget; environmental services was $102,000 under. Nobody, Hemingway said, was allowed to juggle their budget and spend the windfall. That allowed the county to finish the year in the black. The county budget is predicting a 20 percent increase in gasoline costs this coming year.

A 2.6 percent drop in building permit revenue and a 19.2 percent drop in recording fees are expected, but documentary stamp revenue shows a 27.3 percent jump. Recording fees reflect the number of transactions, while documentary stamps express their value. Hemingway said the county had new Lowe’s Foods and Publix grocery stores contributing to building totals last year. He wanted to stay in the neighborhood with building estimates. “If the trend holds,” he said, “we’ll be a little higher.”

Landfill tipping fees also reflect building trends, he said. The budget shows a 3.8 percent increase over last year’s budget but a much smaller increase in what was actually collected. Construction and demolition material collection fees parallel building growth, Hemingway said.

The sheriff’s office is preparing for wider use of body cameras by officers with a $21,000 capital expense for a new server. The state could provide money for the cameras or make them another unfunded mandate. Either way, the sheriff is preparing. The mandatory switch to 800 megahertz radios will cost the sheriff’s office a lot more: around $800,000. That money will come from the Capital Improvement Plan, Hemingway said, and is not part of the regular county budget.

County-wide millage is proposed to increase 2 percent from 54.9 mills to 56. Impending reassessment could alter that figure. Prior to the adoption of a 15 percent cap on property value increases in 2009, the county would reduce millage to neutralize revenue, Hemingway said. There are properties that have decreased in value since the last reassessment. There is no floor as to how far those values can drop. Resetting the millage will have to wait until all the figures are in. “Folks with highly appreciated property,” Hemingway said, “are the real beneficiaries of reassessment.”

Midway Fire District will see a 2.6 percent rise in millage from 11.5 to 11.8 mills. Estimated revenues are $3.46 million with expenditures running just $17,600 higher. The department will balance its budget by making a withdrawal from its $1.2 million fund balance.

The overall county budget will also depend on a $700,000 withdrawal from its fund balance, dropping the total from $9.93 million to $9.23 million. Hemingway has said he wants to maintain a minimum $8 million fund balance.

Georgetown County Council will hold third and final reading on the budget June 23.

View the county budget online or view a hard copy at any county library branch.

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