County Council forwards budget, disagrees on A-Tax disbursements
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Darlington County Council held their regular monthly meeting on Monday, May 7 in the fifth floor courtroom of the county courthouse, and passed second reading for the 2018/19 fiscal year budget, which will include a general fund budget of $22.2 million for operating expenditures.
Departmental budget recommendations included $3.7 million for the W. Glenn Campbell Correctional Center, $755,107 for the Prison Farm, $5.58 million for the Sheriff’s Office, $2.79 million for Environmental Services, $2.3 million for the Fire District, $1.4 million for the Library Fund, and $2.3 million for the Darlington County Airport.
At an earlier budget work session, county administrator Charles Stewart informed council members that the unassigned fund balance stands around $10.8 million.
Darlington County has an internal rule that requires an unassigned fund balance (which would cover county operating expenses in the event of an emergency) matching at least thirty-five percent of the general fund, so this year’s fund balance is approximately $3 million healthier than minimum standards.
Stewart outlined increases in employer retirement contributions, which will add another $136,000 each year to the county’s budget, adding up to an additional $2.8 million by fiscal year 2023. He also warned that the county will have to absorb a 7-percent hike in employee health insurance costs.
Property taxes will be increased by 1.47 mills, per the SC state law millage cap of 2.13 percent.
Revenue decreases are forecast for federal inmate housing (due to reduced demand), landfill solid waste fees and tipping fees, and Emergency Services residential fees.
Council also approved two agreements with design and engineering firm Michael Baker International to conduct feasibility studies on how the current courthouse building might be rehabilitated and redesigned for use as administration offices. The two studies will cost $52,272 and $32,736.
At prior meetings, Coker had asked Stewart to bring council estimates for these studies so that council could be informed whether rehabbing the current building is possible before incurring the expense of demolishing it. The current projected cost for demolishing the courthouse and returning that area of the Darlington Public Square to green space is $3.36 million.
When Council reviewed the funding recommendations presented by the Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee, Vice Chair Le Flowers proposed an amendment that redistributed a significant chunk of the $25,000 A-tax pool.
The funding pool comes from a 2-percent tax levied on hotels stays in the county.
The Accommodations Tax Advisory Committee’s recommendations were as follows:
• Black Creek Arts Council and Black Creek Arts Council/Yoga & Healing Arts Fest: $2,500
• Butler Heritage Foundation: $2,500
• E&E Benefit Concert/ American Cancer Society and E&E Benefit Concert/Leukemia & Lymphoma Society: $3,000
• Hartsville Community Center Bldg. Comm/Center Theater: $8,500
• Hartsville Community Dev Foundation/Ag+Art Tour: $500
• SC Junior Golf Foundation/Players Championship: $6,200
• Southeastern Bluegrass Association: $1,500
• YMCA of Upper Pee Dee/Hartsville YMCA: $300
Flowers asked that all funding be stripped from the Hartsville Center Theater ($8,500), that $1,500 be added to funding for the Butler Heritage Foundation (bringing their funding to $4,000), and the remaining $7,000 be split between the Lamar Egg Scramble Jamboree, the Darlington Pilot Club Sweet Potato Festival, and the Society Hill Catfish Festival, giving each an additional $2,333. Each of those community festivals already receives $3,000 from county Hospitality Tax revenues.
Council members Lewis Brown and David Coker both opposed the amendment. Brown noted that Accommodations Tax rules state that the funds are meant to fund tourism activities, which bring in overnight guests from over fifty miles away, and applicants are meant to provide the committee with data verifying that their event meets this qualification.
Both Brown and Coker expressed concern that when a Council-appointed committee does as they are instructed and then Council disregards their findings and advice, it may set a precedent that discourages citizens from participating on volunteer boards and commissions.
“What’s the point in having (a committee) if we don’t trust that they are going through the correct process?” asked Coker.
Flowers explained that his reservations stemmed from nearly all of the A-Tax budget being sent to one municipality (Hartsville) where numerous venues and attractions are already financially successful “rather than saying that no one from Lamar or Society Hill or Darlington is worthy of Accommodations Tax. To me, that is the dangerous precedent.”
Brown and Coker voted against the amendment and the new funding totals, with the balance of Council voting in favor and Chairman Bobby Hudson abstaining.