THIS WEEK'S TOP STORIES
Budgets: Even with tax increase, county looks for cuts
By Charles Swenson
Expenses for Georgetown County operations are running $720,000 ahead of revenue for the coming year. At the sheriff’s office, expenses are $616,000 more that revenue. Midway Fire and Rescue has a $206,000 deficit. And those preliminary budget figures don’t include any requests for new staff. “We’re still having a lot of discussion on that,” County Administrator Sel Hemingway said.
Revenue in the county’s $16.7 million general fund is projected to rise less than 1 percent. Expenses are up 3.6 percent, with health insurance premiums and contributions to the state pension fund due to rise. Salaries are up 1.8 percent, but personnel costs are up 4.8 percent overall.
The county is trying to hold its staff at current levels, Hemingway told County Council last week. “I have to say no a lot.”
The county is limited by state law in its ability to raise taxes. The formula, based on the consumer price index and population growth, allows a 1.5 percent increase this year. Even with that included, the county is still working to balance its budget.
The sheriff’s office expects to see revenue decline in the coming year to $12.6 million, with less money being paid to house federal and municipal prisoners in the county jail. Traffic fines are also expected to drop nearly 17 percent to $520,000.
“I don’t like to depend on fine revenue. It makes people think you’ve got to go out there and write tickets,” Sheriff Lane Cribb said. The reduction isn’t a reflection of changes in traffic enforcement.
Expenses at the sheriff’s office are up 2.6 percent overall. Personnel costs are up 4.7 percent. Cribb met this week with Hemingway and Scott Proctor, the finance director, to go over the budget.
There is a portion of the county property tax millage dedicated to the sheriff’s office, and it gets to keep any surplus. Cribb said that would cover the projected deficit. But Hemingway said some of the sheriff’s budgeted expenses are higher that actual costs in past years and could be trimmed. Personnel costs for Midway Fire and Rescue are up 6.8 percent. “That’s overtime. It’s tied to call volume,” Fire Chief Doug Eggiman said.
This is the final year of a four-year plan to raise employee pay that began with an effort targeted at keeping first responders from leaving the county for nearby agencies. The raises were extended to all employees.
“I think it’s helped us retain a little better,” Cribb said. But he added that when nearby agencies raise pay, “if you don’t do it you’re out in the cold.”
The pay plan followed a 3 percent cut during the Great Recession and an end to merit increases. That put first responders about 20 percent behind their peers in nearby departments.
The raises helped Midway initially, although the department still lagged behind its neighbors. “It’s a very competitive market right now. A lot of people around us are getting pay raises,” Eggiman said. “We’ve never been at the point where we’re leading the pack.”
But Midway recently filled three vacancies and expect to fill three more, he said. Having a full staff will help cut down on overtime pay, Eggiman said.
Midway will also comb its $4.1 million in expenses for cuts, but Eggiman isn’t optimistic about finding $218,000 to offset the additional personnel costs.
He and Cribb both said the state law capping tax increases has hurt. “I’m not advocating raising taxes, but sometimes if you want services you have to raise taxes,” Cribb said.
Hemingway plans to present revised departmental budgets to County Council next week. The new fiscal year begins July 1. “We will come back with a balanced budget,” Hemingway said.
Budgets: School district sees increase in state funds
By Charles Swenson
An expected rise in state funding will help boost revenue for Georgetown County School District operations in the coming year and provide a pay raise for employees. To do more, the school board will have to raise taxes, according to district officials.
“I’m not sure the school board will support a tax increase,” Superintendent Randy Dozier said.
The school district isn’t projecting any change to property tax revenue. The district found itself facing a deficit after adopting the current budget because it failed to account for a reduction in values after a 2015 property reassessment by the county. The reduced revenue wasn’t discovered until the annual audit.
The district froze spending rather than tap into its reserves. “We’re OK as far as meeting budget this year with our tax collections,” said Lisa Johnson, the district finance director. Spending is actually down a little from the previous year, she added.
But she hasn’t raised her estimates for local tax collections for the coming year. They remain at $41.5 million, just under half of the district’s general fund revenue.
The district is projecting a $1 million increase in money it gets from the state through the Education Finance Act. The final amount will be determined by the state budget. The additional state revenue will cover a step increase for district staff or 1 percent for employees not covered by that pay scale.
Dozier is pleased that the district can afford the raises. “There are a lot of districts that are struggling,” he said.
The district will also see a $1.2 million savings from staff retirements or resignations and changes in the funding sources for some employees. There are eight to 10 teaching positions in the district that won’t be filled unless enrollment increases, Dozier said.
During presentations to the board this winter, principals from across the district came to the board with a similar message: we want to keep the staff we have. Some asked for additional support staff, such as technology and academic coaches.
“Unless you want to add some of those additional requests, we don’t have funding,” Dozier told the school board this week.
The school district is limited by state law in its ability to raise taxes. The restrictions are part of the same law, known as Act 388, that exempt owner-occupied homes from property tax for school operations. That money is supplied to districts as a portion of the state sales tax.
The district could raise its tax rate 1.51 percent this year under the formula. That would generate less than $500,000.
Board Member Richard Kerr said he would like to review a summary of the additional budget requests. But he was more interested in maintaining the district’s $10 million surplus.
After hearing from Johnson that the spending freeze was having an effect, Kerr said, “it looks like we do have the chance to have a surplus in the budget.”
“There is a chance,” Johnson said
. The surplus is important for keeping the district’s bond rating up and its borrowing costs low as it embarks on a $165 million package of renovations and expansions approved by voters in a bond referendum last year. The district recently issued short-term bonds for ongoing capital needs, such as computers for students. The district’s bond rating was unchanged, Johnson said.
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