Council passes budget amidst controversy

During the June 30, 2023 City Council meeting, Darlington City Manager John Payne reads the text of City Code 2-120, which states that the proposed budget simply must be available, on file with the City Clerk, if requested by members of the public. PHOTO BY STEPHAN DREW

By Stephan Drew, Editor

The Darlington City Council convened a Special Meeting on Friday, June 30, 2023, to pass the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, amounting to a substantial $8,511,157.43. The gathering turned somewhat tense as concerns were raised by attendees, who demanded copies of the budget. Copies were immediately printed and distributed among the crowd. Additionally, the meeting saw discussions surrounding amendments to the budget, concerns over an existing gym/health plan, and calls for long-term planning regarding the city’s development.

The meeting started with some tension as Jannie Lathan, along with several others in attendance, voiced their dissatisfaction with the lack of budget transparency. They criticized the fact that the budget had not been posted online or made readily available to the public without specific requests. Referring to the City of Darlington’s Code of Ordinances, which states that the budget should be accessible for public inspection at least one week before final adoption, Lathan and others argued that the city had failed to fulfill its obligations. 

The City of Darlington Codes and Ordinances Section 2-120 states: “(a) An ordinance to levy a tax, adopt a budget, appropriate funds, or grant a franchise, license or right to use or occupy a public street or public property for commercial purposes shall be complete in the form in which it is finally passed, and in that form remain on file with the clerk-treasurer for public inspection at least one week before final adoption.” City Manager John Payne responded by emphasizing that the ordinance did not explicitly require the budget to be published in print or online for public viewing. Instead, it only requires the budget to be available for review at the Clerk’s office upon request. 

In the budget, City employees will receive a raise to make their salaries closer meet the level of others in the state. The budget also includes a 6% increase in the stormwater fee and a 6% increase in sanitation fees. 

During the budget discussions, a few changes were proposed and implemented. Notably, the allocation for the Darlington Memorial Cemetery was increased from $200 to $800, with an additional $600 increase specifically designated for the cemetery. The Beautification budget also saw an increase, with funds rising from $7,000 to $10,000. To accommodate these changes, the increased amounts were drawn from the Reserve Fund.

Former mayor Gloria Hines questioned the necessity of approving the gym/health plan at Fitness World for city employees. Hines cited the imminent arrival of Planet Fitness in the fall and suggested postponing the approval until further consideration. Mayor Curtis Boyd, the owner of Fitness World, assured the council that he could personally terminate the contract if so desired.

As a result, the budget was revised to remove the $5,000 earmarked for Fitness World and instead allocate it to the Reserve Fund, with the exception of the $600 increase for the Darlington Memorial Cemetery. The increased allocation for Beautification was also sourced from the Reserve Fund.

Throughout the meeting, citizens and council members voiced their grievances regarding various issues plaguing the city. Concerns were raised about water and sewer problems, as well as the presence of potholes and other road damage. Some complained that the North side of Darlington had seen many repairs while the South side remained in disarray. Councilman Bryant Gardner responded to these complaints by acknowledging that every part of the city faced its own set of challenges, implying that these issues were not unique to any one particular area.

Councilwoman Sheila Baccus took the opportunity to criticize the council’s decision to spend $600,000 on land for an athletic complex that had yet to be constructed. Councilman Gardner swiftly responded, reminding Baccus that she had also voted in favor of the expenditure.

Jannie Lathan inquired whether the city had a 5 or 10-year Capital Improvement Plan, which provides an active blueprint for sustaining and improving a community’s infrastructures City Manager John Payne acknowledged the absence of such a plan at present but assured Lathan that a study should be conducted this year to develop and implement a comprehensive long-term strategy for the city’s improvement and growth.

In other business, Council passed Ordinance 2023-04, which approves the levy of millage for the City of Darlington. The amount will remain the same as last year, at 129.9793 mills. They also passed Ordinance 2023-05, which gives the City Manager the ability to borrow up to $650,000 in the case of an emergency.

Streets and Sanitation Director Alex Gainey came before council to request an additional $17,342.41, to be used for increased repair costs for that department’s vehicles. Delays and increased costs prompted the request.

The Darlington City Council’s meeting to pass the budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year was marred at times by tension and discontent. Council will next meet on July 11, 2023.

Author: Stephan Drew

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