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Budget process could see more cuts and uncertainty

A Column by the Editor
web posted February 4, 2010
COLUMN – With the new year comes the daunting task of passing next year’s fiscal budget with even deeper cuts expected than last year. The battle over where to cut over $620,000 last year left the county in jeopardy of ending the fiscal year without a budget in place. This year could be worse.

Last year Edgefield County Council Chairman Monroe Kneece finally broke from the ranks of the entrenched veteran council members and supported, along with Councilman Rodney Ashcraft, a budget presented by Merriwether Councilwoman Genia Blackwell that provided for the cuts, employee benefits, and did not raise taxes.

South Carolina State Representative Bill Clyburn (D-Aiken) said at the Intergovernmental Meeting last week that all indications are there will be further cuts to the Aid to Subdivisions, also referred to as the Local Government Fund (LGF), but to what extent remains uncertain.

Revenues to the state are down considerably and that in turn would be reflected in the amount of funds directed back to the counties. Rep. Clyburn said he hoped that “stimulus money” could be used to offset some of the shortfalls, but gave no guarantees. 

State Sen. Shane Massey has been cautious in his predictions since all funding originates in the House. A key issue for Sen. Massey was funding for education, he stated in previous conversations.

Almost all county departments have already been cut to the skeleton and any further cuts would likely result in radical changes and could bring back the hotly contested debate of county employees being forced to pay for promised insurance benefits while not receiving pay raises in past years and working at a pay scale lower than surrounding counties.

Further cuts from the state would also ignite a second debate over tens of thousands of dollars given away to non-governmental entities such as Piedmont Tech and the Tompkins Library, who collectively receive over $50,000 from the county.

Recreation could also see a greater impact on its budget than last year as the only non-essential county government operation. Under the budget provided for this fiscal year, $201,783 is spent on recreation. The Recreation Department was said to be self-sustaining when it was created. Since that time the county has expended a million dollars on a program that was promised to never cost the taxpayers a penny.

Depending on which representative you ask at the local or state level, the expected cut of the Aid to Subdivisions from the state to the county is expected to be somewhere between 12% and 15%, or roughly $175,000 that will have to be trimmed from the budget.

And that would not include any shortfall from revenues collected by the county. There is also an almost guaranteed cut in Special Local Option Sales Tax funds (SPLOST). With overall spending in the state down, the penny tax revenues are estimated to be down between 20% and 30%, adding even deeper problems for county leaders.

When all the bad news is totaled, the county could have to trim as much as $300,000 from the total budget if projections available at this time come to fruition.

To see what has happened over the past three years - the budget for fiscal year 08-09 rang in at over $8.8 million, fiscal year 09-10 dropped to just over $8.2 million, and this coming fiscal year the budget could fall to $7.9 million - a 12% reduction in the overall budget in just two years. 

The question that will remain to be answered is - will the county finally focus on needs over wants and giveaways?

The budget process begins in earnest next month.

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