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Guest Editorial

Edgefield  County  Budget  Process  For  FY 2008-2009

By: Bob Ramsey
web posted April 1, 2008
GUEST EDITORIAL – The dogwood trees and azaleas are blooming, the yellow pollen is in the air, and the days are getting longer!  All of these things are “acts of nature” and occur routinely every year.  However, another activity takes place at this time of the year, and it has nothing to do with Mother Nature or the Masters Golf Tournament.  This “other activity” is much more important because it directly affects each of us residents of Edgefield County in a much more personal way!  It is the beginning of “The Edgefield County Annual Budget Process!”  And this “process” has been likened  “to making pork sausage” – a little bit of everything goes into it at the beginning, and what comes out at the end sometimes has no resemblance to the “ingredients” that went in at the beginning -  and it always gives some a bad case of “heartburn!” 

The County Council held its first “Work Session” on the proposed  FY 2008-09 Budget on Tuesday Evening, March 18.  This was a “first brush pro-forma review” by the Council of the “Funding Wish Lists” that had been submitted by the various County Department Heads, through the County Administrator, to the Council for consideration and approval.  Only two County Office “heads” were present at this March 18 meeting to defend their “wish lists” – the County Sheriff and the County Magistrate.  The Sheriff said very little, other than to say, “I will answer any questions you have about my budget request.”  The Magistrate made a very professional and personal appeal for the increases that he had made in his budget submittal, and stated that he and the County Administrator had not been able to “resolve” his requested increase.  The Council Chairman told both officials, “The Council will take your requests under advisement as we proceed through the budget process.”

The key point to be made about this initial meeting regarding the FY 2008-09 Budget is that there were only two “citizens” in the audience, and one of them was a news journalist!   There will be further “Budget Work Sessions”, several “Readings” of the proposed new Budget Ordinance, including a “Public Hearing” on the Ordinance; and then a Final Reading that will approve and enact this FY 2008-09 Budget.   At all of these “Readings” and “Working Sessions” there will be ample opportunities for the Public to raise questions, and to ask the Council to fully justify the line items and amounts that make up this proposed Budget.  A DRAFT copy of this proposed FY 2008-09 County Budget is available to the public at www.EdgefieldDaily.com.  Citizens and taxpayers of Edgefield County are strongly encouraged to become familiar with this proposed Budget, and are urged to attend the scheduled Budget Review sessions.  These Budget sessions will be your chance to provide input and to see what is happening to your tax dollars.

There is considerable “homework” and “soul-searching” that must be done by the Council Members before they reach final consensus on this proposed budget.  However, I truly believe each Council Member is sincere in his desire to do “the right thing” for the taxpayers of this County.  But I am not sure this Council is willing to “think out of the box!”

Edgefield County is now very dependent upon receiving its operating revenues from “residential sources;” but the residential growth in the County has held almost constant at about 2% growth for the past 10 years - although tax revenues in this new budget are projected to increase by about 3% over last year.  The day of “smoke stack” and other “commercial industries and entities” in our county is in the past.  The same is true for our adjacent counties, and the outlook is not good for a return of “industry” to Edgefield County.  This situation is further exacerbated by the continuing national housing crisis that is expected to affect adversely our County’s residential development for the near future, too.  There should be no “Sacred Cows” in this Proposed Budget!

Accordingly, our Council needs to look at more “unconventional” ways of funding our County’s Operations, to include not only cutting expenditures, but also looking at ways to “consolidate” certain functions with our neighboring McCormick and Saluda counties which are facing similar budget constraints and fiscal challenges. 

In this regard, the following suggestions and comments are offered for consideration by the County Council as possible ways of approaching the FY 2008-2009 Budget Process: 

-    Review in minute (not “general”) detail each “Edgefield County Function,” to include the “non-General Fund Operations Functions,” to determine if any function or activity can be reduced, eliminated, or consolidated into a “Regional Activity” with neighboring McCormick and Saluda Counties to cut costs.  Examples include “911 Coverage,” certain Disaster/EMS Functions, and a proposed “211 Coverage,” if the County decides to get involved in this latter enterprise.  Certain “economies of scale” and cost savings should result from such consolidation, without degrading the function or service.

-    One of the largest expenditures in this Edgefield County Budget is “Law Enforcement Functions.” Consideration should be given to beginning a “multi-year plan for a “Regional Law Enforcement Center” for Edgefield, McCormick, and Saluda Counties.  This consolidated function alone should save millions of dollars over a multi-year period for all three counties.  Currently the Edgefield County Jail is at its maximum occupancy and in dire need of expansion.  Instead of “expanding” it into a “temporary structure,” (as has been considered), why not team with the other two counties to begin budgeting for and building a consolidated regional facility?  When this suggestion has been made in the past, the “conventional opposition” has been that “such consolidated facility will require Edgefield County Deputies to drive more distances with prisoners!”  This is fallacious, and the Council should make its own “economic and cost analysis” of this suggestion.   

-    “Crime” appears, by various reports, to be on the increase in Edgefield County, and the Sheriff may have a valid need for additional resources, as now shown in his budget request.  However, he appears to be unable to articulate or quantify his requests and requirements.  He seems to follow the age-old budget philosophy of “ask for six and hope for two!”

-    The Council does not appear to have any credible documents or analyses upon which to base their decisions regarding the Sheriff’s Budget Submission.  To assist the Sheriff in quantifying his actual needs now and in the  future, the Council should retain an outside and independent “auditor” to assess the entire scope of the Sheriff’s Operations to establish a “baseline of needs,” to include “current and projected requirements” over the next five years; and the Council needs to begin budgeting accordingly.

-    A significant case in point is that when the Edgefield County Sheriff makes a request for additional deputies, he also requests new vehicles for each new deputy.  Why not consider putting two deputies in a single vehicle for the “graveyard shift?”  This would preclude several vehicles and several deputies responding to the same call during this period; and it would provide a measure of “security” for “emergency responders” during this dangerous period of enforcement coverage.  In addition, such plan would result in conserving personnel resources, vehicle/gasoline costs, and other “support” expenses.  

-    Council should also look at passing on to the Towns in the County, if possible, all or a portion of the costs of certain “activities” that are now funded solely by the County, but used primarily by the Towns. This, too, could fall under the category of”Consolidation of Efforts and Resources.”

-    In this era of “reduced availability of funding,” the Council should consider hiring a person whose sole job would be to seek and request “grant funds” for various County activities.  This type of “funding” is going to become more and more competitive, and our County needs to “get ahead of the curve” on this issue.  One grant of $25k-$30k would pay the salary of such qualified person!  The County appears to be sorely lacking in this particular function. 

-    Edgefield County is facing a very serious situation regarding the condition, support, and operation of its aging and antiquated Emergency Communications System.  Currently the County has two repeater communications towers in two different areas of the County to operate most of the emergency communications throughout the County. 

-    These particular towers are literally “on their last legs!”  The County Emergency Operations Director has done an amazing job of keeping these “antique” towers and outdated equipment operational – most of the time.  However, one tower is in dire need of relocation due to the contaminated soil upon which it rests, and both towers and supports are literally “rotting and corroding out!” 

-    Since the existing County “Communications System” is so antiquated, it is difficult for the County to obtain available Federal and State grant funding for replacement or repair of the current system.  However, Federal Homeland Security Funding and State grants are available for a new (800 Series) Emergency Communications System; but to receive such funding the County must be willing to enter into a “Multi-County Communications System” agreement with adjacent counties, some of which have already switched to this new equipment.  This is another example of the need for “Inter-County Cooperation”. 

-    Facing a decline in revenues amid rising costs and competition, most commercial businesses are eliminating health coverage for employees, or at least are passing on to their employees a portion of the increased health costs. This is a “cost” that is only going to get larger in the coming years.  Council should follow the lead of industry and consider a major revision of County Employees Health Benefits.  The era of “free” health coverage for all employees (governmental and civilian) is in the past, and the Council should recognize this fact and act accordingly.

-    The taxpayers should NOT be fully subsidizing the health care costs and other such “fringe benefits” for County employees, especially those County employees who work 30 or fewer hours per week, but still receive “full benefits.”  Most “civilian” business enterprises require a 40-hour workweek for full benefits.  Why should the County employees who are paid by taxpayer funds, be different from other “civilian” employees

-    This is an election year and all seats on the County Council will be contested.  This process of all members up for re-election every two years is also very antiquated.  The possibility now exists for a complete new Council to be elected every two years.  This “possible total changeover” is not good for the County or for the continuity of County Government.  It seems appropriate for Edgefield County Council to adopt a “staggered term” system, which would ensure continuity of expertise and experience.  Council should look into the feasibility of adopting such a system. 

With limited resources and revenues, and with ever-increasing costs of all commodities, it just seems prudent for our County Council to adopt an approach to the FY 2008-09 Budget of “Conserve, Cooperate, and Consolidate” wherever possible. 
 I have only touched on a few areas of the “budget,” and there are many other areas that need to be closely scrutinized to ensure that the budget requests are justified, and not just a “bump up” from last year’s budget.  

Edgefield County Citizens and Taxpayers are urged to become “involved” in the County Budget Process by attending all of the Council Meetings and observing your Council “in action.”  Everything they do is “in the open” and very transparent.  They are also open for suggestions and advice.  Please do not hesitate to make your views known to your elected officials, but give them the courtesy of attending their Council Meetings to become more informed on the issues before being critical of their actions.  The Council Meetings are normally held on the first Tuesday of each month at 6:00 p.m. in the Council Chambers Building.

                        Bob Ramsey
                        Merriwether District


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