Council begins budget planning
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
“I know it’s another tough year, but we’ll make it happen some kind of way,” said Bobby Hudson, chair of Darlington County Council as that body convened a work session May 11 at the Pee Dee Regional Council of Governments. Council discussed proposed general fund and departmental budgets for the 2016/17 fiscal year, which total $24.8 million – an increase of $660,632 over the previous year.
County administrator Terence Arrington addressed these changes at council’s May 2 regular meeting, and he explained again that many unfunded mandates from the state, along with an increase in the county’s required employee retirement contribution (about $70,000) and health insurance increases (almost $88,000), have pushed expenses higher while revenues remain stagnant.
“There’s no way we’re going to be able to fund all of these items,” said Arrington.
Arrington noted that the allowable millage increase (based on county population growth) would be minimal, about 0.12 percent, yielding only $15,000, and state officials have warned that the Local Government Fund (state money paid to counties and municipalities) is unlikely to increase in time for budget planning.
Darlington County must find a way to come into compliance with several mandates dealing with security deficiencies in Information Technology (delineated in a recent report by DSS) and prisoner safety at the county’s Corrections Center.
Arrington told work session attendees that Blake Stanley from the South Carolina Department of Corrections is scheduled to attend council’s May 23 meeting to discuss Darlington County’s non-compliance with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA). Bringing the county jail into compliance would require hiring several additional guards, and the jail’s supervisory agency – Darlington County Sheriff’s Office – has not yet announced any plan to increase jail staffing.
Vehicle purchases might prove less problematic, since the county is nearly at the end of a five-year lease/purchase agreement and could simply repeat that program to fund the purchase of $3.5 million in new vehicles and heavy equipment. This plan should include grass-cutting equipment for Roads & Bridges, 4 new ambulances, and perhaps 40 vehicles for the Sheriff’s Office.
Hudson and council member Dannie Douglas brought up the need for more security cameras at county libraries, and Robbin Brock added that new security cameras are needed at the courthouse as well.
Arrington agreed that most county facilities could use a security upgrade, and reminded council that plans for a modern and secure courthouse / administration facility rely heavily on voters approving a penny sales tax to fund that project. He estimated the cost of a new courthouse at $20 to $30 million, and noted that the current penny sales tax (which benefits the Darlington County School District) yields about $5 million a year in revenue.
One new revenue source – the 2-percent hospitality tax (H-Tax) levied on prepared foods sold in unincorporated areas of the county – will yield a predicted $180,000 annually. In just over ten months, the tax has put about $170,000 into county coffers. This money can be spent on programs to increase county tourism, and council member Bobby Kilgo queried whether H-Tax money can be used to offset Parks and Recreation Department costs, thereby freeing up some of that department’s budget to cover new expenses and mandates.
Arrington said he would look into the possibility, but noted that County Council must put H-Tax expenditure rules and plans into ordinance form and pass three readings before that money can be spent.
Kilgo also asked that $15,000 be added to the new budgets to outfit County Council chambers for audio/video recording so that the public can be privy to the full scope of discussion at these meetings.
Darlington County Council will hold a public hearing on the budget ordinance at a special meeting on Monday, May 23 at 9 am in the Pee Dee Regional Council of Governments Conference Center, located at 2314 Pisgah Road in Florence. This meeting is open to the public.