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Letter to the Editor:

"Benign neglect, studied indifference or willful ignorance?"


web posted November 1, 2006

Dear Editor,

Benign neglect, studied indifference or willful ignorance?  Which of these phrases best describes the governance of Edgefield County over the last three to four years?  Given the proposed 34.6% increase in tax revenues for just the county operations fund the Edgefield County Council is proposing to approve on November 7, it may be that each of the phrases is an apt description.

By way of background, the Council decided in February 2006 not to proceed with the county wide reassessment but rather to delay reassessment for one year.  The Council then proceeded in the spring of this year to formulate a budget for FY 06-07.  The Council adopted a budget for FY 06-07 in June 2006, without any mention of an impending financial crisis, unmet critical spending needs or depletion of fund reserves.  The ink was barely dry on the budget when the Council reversed course and had the first reading of Ordinance No. 05-06-580 to adopt and implement the reassessment values on July 11, 2006.  Accompanying the ordinance to implement reassessment was another ordinance “Amending Ordinance No: 05-06-579…to Provide for Reassessment Revenues.”  Ordinance 06-07-581, first reading, August 8, 2006.  Now that the reassessment notices have been received, we understand the effect these latter two ordinances will have on the pocketbooks and budgets of each taxpayer of Edgefield County.

It is interesting to note that as of early August 2006, when the Council decided to adopt the reassessment, they determined there could be a windfall of increased property tax revenue due to the reassessment for the county general operations fund and determined at that time to spend the windfall, instead of engaging the taxpayers in an open conversation as to the monetary effect of reassessment and the best course of action to take from the viewpoint of the budgets of the taxpayers and the county’s revenue needs.  Instead, the Council, giving at best bare legal notice to the public, operated in stealth mode to implement this 34.6% tax hike.  The taxpayers of Edgefield County deserve better treatment from the Council than the process they have followed in their haste to spend the windfall.

Council has explained the need for such a tax hike in two ways.  First, they point out that they have not raised the millage for general operations for several years and the reserves are at a dangerously low level.  Second, the Council has said this is a one year painful experience since the school operations millage will come off the tax bills in 2007.  Neither excuse withstands scrutiny.

As to the lack of millage increases over the last several years, this can best be described as benign neglect.  If as Council has indicated that, rather than raise the millage for general operations, they decided to dip into the reserve fund, such acts were fiscally irresponsible.  While Council members are part time employees of Edgefield County, they are full time stewards of the county and need to run the county’s finances in a businesslike manner.  Furthermore, this excuse does not take into account that tax revenue in all likelihood increased during those years due to growth in residential communities since more houses and lots came on to the tax rolls.

The Council has also asserted that the outside auditors stated that the reserves needed to be replenished and thus the tax increase.   This excuse does not wash for several reasons.  First, the outside auditor’s report for FY 05-06 is only a draft and is subject to change.  Second, the Council has declined to make the draft available to the public so the taxpayers do not as of this date have a clear picture of the county’s finances as of June 30, 2006.  Again, remember the Council adopted a budget for FY 06-07 without any hint of financial difficulty.  Third, according to the numbers made available by the county staff prior to the October 19, 2006, Council meeting, the Council will collect an additional $1,090,506
of tax revenue for the general operations fund, a 34.6% increase over last year’s collections for this fund.  The amount of additional tax revenue is more than what is needed to replenish the reserve fund.  Furthermore, the Council proposes to increase the budget for the general operations fund by only $636,629.   This leaves $453,877 unaccounted for.  The numbers do not add up.

The Council has correctly observed that the school ops millage will disappear next year.  However, what is to stop the Council, having tasted a 34.6% tax increase in one year, from deciding to continue increasing tax revenues for the general operations fund by a similar amount in future years?  The track record of this Council indicates that we can expect future tax increases of this magnitude as the Council has not demonstrated the ability to manage the county’s finance in a fiscally responsible manner.

Council’s response to their constituents expressed concerns in regard to reassessment issues and the need for a 34.6% increase in tax collections for the general operations fund is best described as studied indifference.  Council member Kitchens did vote against the millage hike in the Council meeting held October 19, 2006.  I would like to think that Mr. Kitchens will also vote in the meeting scheduled for November 7, 2006, against the amended budget, the vehicle by which the Council will spend the windfall from the reassessment, and will be joined by at least two of his colleagues.

If the Council does not reverse course and instead goes ahead with this unprecedented 34.6% tax hike, the Council will be willfully neglecting the future of Edgefield County.  The economic future of this county is residential growth.  Putting a 34.6% tax hike on the backs of the residential property owners is sending the wrong message to retirees who are considering relocating to Edgefield County.  These folks are looking to move to low tax areas where the governing officials are fiscally conservative and responsible.  The Council’s actions in regard to the general operations fund over the last few years are neither. 

A wise man once said that it is better to take the slow nickel rather than grab the fast dime.  The Council should slow down, roll the millage back to take into account the reassessment increases and spend the next six months studying the finances of the county and engaging the citizens in an open dialogue as to the county’s needs.  Residential growth means that increased tax revenues are just around the corner.  Now is the time for the Council to become fiscally prudent and study the revenue needs of the county, the projected tax receipts and take action next year to raise taxes if needed, not this year.  There is no need for the Council to take this precipitous action and derail the future of Edgefield County.

Sincerely,

William F. Smith
Merriwether, SC


 


 





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