County budget cuts taxes, increases services

  • Thursday, January 30, 2014

It was interesting to read the recent Berkeley Independent headline that stated “County Council Power Shift Tops 2013 News.”

While we certainly agree that the shift in the makeup of council was significant for Berkeley County citizens, the article did not adequately explain why the more conservative makeup of council was significant. As we are now at the one-year mark since the shift, we thought it an opportune time to deliver a progress report. In this report we will address the recently passed county budget and will follow with updates on our open government initiatives and public safety initiatives in the coming weeks.

In order to ensure that this year’s budget deliberation was a more open and inclusive process than in the past, we hosted more budget workshops and encouraged more participation than we’ve had in many years.

We even extended the budget deadline an additional six weeks to accommodate council members’ requests for additional information. While most members were actively engaged with suggestions and input, a few opted not to engage, but it is our hope that as trust continues to build, so will involvement.

What was the end result? In order to answer that question, you may need a brief primer on how the county budget process works.

It starts off with the Supervisor presenting his recommended budget to Council, at which point it becomes Council’s obligation under state law to review and amend (if necessary) the budget so that it best serves the interest of county and its citizens.

Not reviewing the budget and thus simply rubberstamping the Supervisor’s budget is an outright abdication of Council’s responsibility. Also under state law, county budgets have to be balanced and despite recent articles stating the contrary, every budget has been balanced in Berkeley County for over 30 years. As such, any budget changes – be it a tax cut, capital purchase or new employee – has to be offset by a subsequent cut in spending. The budget review is rarely an enjoyable or easy process but in the end it was worth the effort as it resulted in a budget that is consistent with the conservative values of Berkeley County and its citizens. Here are some highlights:

• A tax cut! Council raised the amount of the property tax credit given back to taxpayers from 71 to 80 percent. Berkeley County was the only local entity in the region (including all cities, counties and school boards) to approve a tax cut.

• County employees received a cost of living adjustment. This 3 percent increase took effect Jan. 1 and is the first pay raise that county employees have received in six years. It was naturally impossible to give raises to employees during the depths of the recession and so we appreciate their patience and loyalty.

• The budget initiated a replacement program for police cruisers and ambulances. Our emergency vehicle fleet is one of the oldest and most dilapidated in the state, to the extent that ambulances were breaking down with patients on board and we were risking the safety of our sheriff’s deputies. We did not simply replace vehicles but initiated a replacement cycle that will not only increase safety but over time it will save the county money. This year alone we replaced 15 cruisers and 3 ambulances.

• Seven new detention center officers will be hired. The taxpayers funded a $10 million expansion of our detention center but to date the county has not provided an adequate number detention center officers to run even the old facility.

• Put money aside to reopen the Goose Creek Satellite Office. Closing this office was short sighted. While it allegedly saved the county $50,000 in expenses, it actually cost the citizens of Goose Creek, Hanahan, Sangaree and Daniel Island 10 times that figure in additional travel expenses.

In summary, the budget increased and improved the level of county services provided to our citizens and decreased the price we charge for them.

We are off to a strong start and we have much work left to do but we look forward to continuing this momentum into 2014. With the current council in place Berkeley County’s future looks brighter than ever.

Phillip Farley - Berkeley County Council District 1; Tim Callanan - Berkeley County Council District 2; Ken Gunn - Berkeley County Council District 3; Cathy Davis - Berkeley County Council District 4; and Dennis Fish - Berkeley County Council District 5

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