County approves $33.2 million budget
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
At a special meeting convened June 22, Darlington County Council voted 6 to 2 in favor of the proposed $33.2 million county budget for fiscal year 2015/16. The budget goes into effect July 1. Ordinance 15-21 covers all departmental budgets and the general fund; prior to this year, council voted on each budget individually. The ordinance includes a general fund of $24,163,914, an Environmental Services fund of $2,716,965, a Fire District Fund of $1,963,370, a Road Maintenance fund of $1,675,000, a County Library fund of $1,352,598, an Emergency Telephone fund of $804,966, a Hartsville Fire Protection District fund of $475,000, and a State Accommodations Tax fund of $60,525.
Council member Bobby Kilgo moved for approval and received a second from Le Flowers. Wilhelmina Johnson and Mozella “Pennie” Nicholson voted “nay,” while the balance of council gave their approval and offered praise to county administrator Terence Arrington and county staffers.
“It was an excellent budget, well prepared and well presented,” said vice chair Robbin Brock, noting that this year it was especially difficult to bring things into balance.
“Over the years, state and federal have cut the county so bad that we just don’t have the money, and it’s hard to run the county just off taxpayer’s money,” said Dannie Douglas, adding that he agrees with a plan to review the budget on a quarterly basis and tweak it as necessary.
Johnson objected specifically to one budget measure that eliminates about eight janitorial jobs in favor of using a private contractor, a move that cut $89,000 from the budget. She also voiced her belief that Darlington County should provide at least $10,000 for the Pee Dee Regional Transportation Authority, and set aside $50,000 to hire a grant writer – even if those items had to come from the county’s fund balance.
Nicholson expressed her displeasure over the restoration of $48,000 to the Darlington County Animal Shelter budget, bringing that budget back up to $148,345. She said that the county should prioritize senior citizens and the poor over animal welfare.
Council heard a presentation from J. Tal Windham of John T. Windham Insurance, LLC and colleague Drexel Mixon. They proposed a feasibility study on leaving the state system and privatizing county employee health insurance. Mixon and Windham told council of several potential advantages, including reduced costs for the county and numerous free medical services for employees and their dependants.
Mixon claimed that he could bring county health insurance rates down by 60-percent with 100-percent coverage and employee co-pays of $25. He also said that many of his clients have been able to give 8-percent pay increases to employees after privatization.
Arrington reminded council that careful consideration is due on this matter because if privatization does not work out well, clients cannot return to the state insurance system for four years.
“We really have to be very cautious about pulling out of the state plan… if it doesn’t work out the way we want it to, employees could incur additional costs,” Arrington said.
Darlington County Auditor Rosa Hudson asked council to restore a position cut from her office in the new budget. Although that job has been vacant for six months, Hudson said it was necessary to maintain services and deal with the public. Council took no immediate action on this request.
In other matters, council unanimously approved a Rural Infrastructure Grant Award of $300,000 from the SC Department of Commerce. The grant money will support the construction of Sonoco’s $12 million research and development project in Hartsville.