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County budget plan includes tax increase for pay raises

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Georgetown County Council Member Ron Charlton said he has never voted for a tax increase in 16 years — but he’s considering it now.

It’s time, Charlton said during a county budget workshop Thursday, to stop “kicking the can down the road” and give county employees a permanent raise to begin restoring what they have lost through a pay cut implemented four years ago.

Six of seven council members favored property tax increases that would give county employees an increase of 2 percent in addition to a 3 percent pay hike proposed without raising taxes.

Proposed tax increases would include: General Fund, .6 mills; Law Enforcement, .4 mills; County Fire, 1.9 mills and Midway Fire and Rescue, .8 mills. “As we’re losing county employees, particularly fire and EMS, we’ve overlooked what it costs to train them,” Charlton said. “We have to do something for these employees.”

Charlton was the least enthusiastic of the six favoring a tax increase, suggesting County Administrator Sel Hemingway get “lean and mean” with the budget, bringing retirees back to work to save medical insurance costs and using more part-time employees.

At the workshop, Hemingway presented council members with two budget options: one containing a 3 percent raise for county employees without tax increases and another with a 5 percent raise with tax increases.

Leona Myers-Miller said she wanted to find a way forward without a tax increase despite the “massive amount of conversation that somebody’s got to get more pay.” She said she would settle for putting off larger raises for one more year in order to hold the line on taxes. The “massive amount” of conversation was a reference to residents in the Midway Fire Tax District seeking a tax increase in order to stop the exodus of trained firefighters and paramedics leaving for better pay and stave off a potentially larger increase in home fire insurance rates.

Council members have been hesitant to raise taxes for Midway without considering other employees, especially county firefighters and sheriff’s deputies.

“We need to give janitors the same kind of consideration we give Midway,” Council Member Lilly Jean Johnson said. “What we do for one, we need to do for all. I’m an advocate for treating everyone the same.”

Hemingway’s first proposal at the workshop included a 3 percent permanent raise for all county employees without a tax increase in a $64.3 million balanced budget. It would maintain a minimum $8 million fund balance, according to the proposal.

Without compounded cost of living increases over the past five years, Hemingway said, county employees have lost double-digit purchasing power. “To be made whole,” he said, “employees would have to be given an 11.5 percent increase on top of the 3 percent.”

He cautioned that any solution addressing employee pay must be sustainable. “It’s foolish to give employees more money and not be able to sustain it,” he said.

Sheriff Lane Cribb presented council members with what Hemingway called a “bare bones budget” containing 3 percent raises for employees and projecting a 2.5 percent increase in expenditures every year going forward. The sheriff’s budget contained four positions authorized but not filled in order to contain costs.

Projections presented to council members showed the sheriff’s office running deficits beginning in 2016 without more revenue.

“The sheriff wants to do that,” Hemigway said, “and hopes that things will get better.”

Myers-Miller suggested approving the sheriff’s budget and increase millage later. “It’s not a sustainable model,” Oakley said. “They will go off a cliff.”

The county fire department will run a $7,000 deficit this year and a projected $23,000 deficit in 2014 without corrective action, Hemingway said. “We realize there are problems with county fire,” he said. “They cover a vast expanse of area with a low tax base.”

Providing Midway Fire and Rescue employees 3 percent raises without tax increases would put operations in the red immediately and drain its fund balance from $1.1 million to just over $828,000 by 2018, according to projections.

Council Member Bob Anderson said Midway requires short-term and long-term planning. “We know what the short-term fix will cost us,” he said. “This may not ever fix our long-term problem.”

Anderson said the Midway fund balance seemed too high, but council member Jerry Oakley reminded him that a major storm would affect the Waccamaw Neck area tax base more than others. “You could make the case,” Oakley said, “that their fund balance ought to be higher.”

Anderson said Oakley’s explanation made sense and he was willing to “fall on his sword” regarding the Midway fund balance.

When asked about the county’s experience after Hurricane Hugo, Hemingway said, “the only thing we can say is that we survived it.”

Oakley said the county’s ability to recover from a big storm would depend on being declared a federal disaster area and qualifying for relief. “We can have substantial damage,” he said, “and not be declared a disaster area. Then, we would be on our own.”

The private sector, Anderson said, looks at cutting costs before thinking about more revenue. “What can we cut from within?” he asked. Hemingway said one factor that has impacted county employees over the past five years is the fact that the private sector has raised prices when cost-cutting was not effective enough. “Over the past four years,” Hemingway said, “we have had a balanced budget with no tax increases and no reduction in services. We have scrutinized the budget line by line and gone to our personnel and elected officials and asked them to cut line items.”

Anderson asked if the county should reduce non-essential services before raising millage.

“Who says what’s essential?” asked Council Member Austin Beard. “We’ve asked our employees to step up and accept a pay cut. It’s time to restore the faith and trust they had in us.”

A public hearing on the budget is scheduled June 11.

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