Budget balanced, but challenges ahead

  • Thursday, May 30, 2013

 Next year’s county budget doesn’t raise taxes but manages to include a few new positions and even some additional dollars for outside agencies.
However, there are looming costs the county will need to deal with in the next few years, chief among them staffing for the new jail.
Dorchester County Council reviewed the county budget and outside agency requests during a budget committee meeting Tuesday evening and a workshop Wednesday.
Council is scheduled to take the final reading of the budget at its meeting Monday in St. George.
By shifting the cable franchise fees, the county freed up money for a parks and recreation director.
This position would be a first for the county, which has never had a parks department. With the realignment of the volunteer parks and recreation commission a couple weeks ago and the addition of a professional director, the county would be on its way to establishing an independent parks department similar to Charleston County’s.
And without increasing millage, the school districts, Dorchester Seniors, and Children in Crisis should receive more money than they requested.
Auditor J.J. Messervry said countywide vehicle values dropped during the recession and its aftermath as people replaced their cars less often.
Now people are beginning to buy new cars again, and the countywide vehicle value is increasing, which translates to more tax dollars at the same millage rate.
That’s particularly significant for the schools, which rely more heavily on vehicle taxes because they don’t receive residential property taxes for operating costs.
Council agreed in January to provide funding for four additional sheriff’s deputies, but Sheriff L.C. Knight asked for another four deputies in addition to the four already granted, citing the same need to fill spots when people are out due to illness, vacation or extended training.
There are four teams of 12 deputies plus one supervisor. Once the four approved deputies are hired, each team should have 13 deputies plus a supervisor.
“Now he’s using the same excuse again,” said Councilman David Chinnis.
Reached after the workshop, Knight said he really needs 15 deputies plus one supervisor per shift.
“I haven’t hired the four they gave me yet because I’m busy replacing what I’m losing,” he said.
With the economy picking up, he’s losing deputies to the private sector and neighboring jurisdictions, he said.
The sheriff also requested two additional dispatchers. Neither of the sheriff’s requests are funded this year.
With a new jail to be built, however, the county will eventually have to deal with the need for more detention center staff.
“We don’t want to be like Berkeley County,” said Councilman George Bailey.
Berkeley County has unused dorms while inmates are crowded into existing space because it doesn’t have the manpower to use the addition built in 2010.
Dorchester County would need an additional 20.5 positions – the 0.5 is a part-time cook – at an annual cost of $978,157, and it needs to figure out the funding within the next 18 months or so.
Construction should begin in about eight months, Council Chairman Bill Hearn said.
EMS Director Doug Warren would like to transition the headquarters station and Trolley Road station to 12-hour shifts instead of 24-hour shifts.
Both stations are busy and employees are frequently working the entire 24-hour period, which is dangerous for patients, employees and the public, according to the county presentation.
Changing to 12-hour shifts would cost $417,548 annually, and that cost isn’t included in the proposed budget.
Five outside groups made budget presentations Tuesday evening. They were:
Dorchester School District 4
The district is requesting the same millage as this year, 220 mills. However, the district is using more than $2 million of its fund balance to balance the budget.
The district was required to get its fund balance under a 15 percent cap, and it projects it will be 12.5 percent, or $2.7 million, by June 2014.
Because of the decrease in fund balance, the district will have to issue a tax anticipation note for the first time in several years to fund operating costs until property tax revenues start to arrive in January.
The Dorchester County Library requested 5.2 mills, an increase of 0.2 mills. The county doesn’t plan to provide the increase.
The county is approaching a crossroads with the Summerville branch on Trolley Road.
Director Frank Bruno said the state insurance fund is requiring he repave the parking lot after a woman fell and broke her leg last week.
In addition, the air conditioning units are going out, and replacing them will cost in the neighborhood of $100,000, he said.
“Do we want to put all these hundreds of thousands of dollars in the Summerville branch?” he asked.
Or, he said, should the county be looking at building a new Summerville library or a secondary Summerville branch?
Bruno said he’s cutting costs as much as possible and eliminated two positions this year.
The board, he said, would like to spend $30,000 on a study examining whether and where to build a new branch.
Chinnis and Councilman Jay Byars scoffed at that particular request.
A study that looks at population density, the population center and the recommended library square footage per capita is going to state the obvious, they said.
“If you’ll pay me 30-thousand to tell you where these are, I’ll be happy to take it,” Chinnis said.
A 2007 study that estimated how much library square footage the county should have is probably an over-estimate now, with the emergence of e-books, Byars said.
Nonetheless, the Summerville library is too small for the needs of the population, he said.
Career and Technology Center
The career and technology center requested no tax increase.
Dorchester School District 2 pulled out of the all-day academic program, director James Villeponteaux said, but he hopes it will return in the future.
In the meantime, he said, he is proposing adding diesel mechanics and criminal justice programs.
County Fire Department
The new united fire department is four months old, Fire Chief Tres Atkinson told council.
It now has 11 stations, 150 volunteers, 10 full-time employees, 25 part-time employees and 48 apparatus, and is adding three people to the St. George location, he said.
Its budget for fiscal year 2014 will be higher than the budget that was estimated for this year -- $1.96 million compared to $1.89 million.
As the new department has gotten underway, he’s found some things that need attention. For example, the tires on fire trucks are supposed to be replaced every 10 years, but some trucks have 20-year-old tires, he said.
Public Defender
First Circuit Public Defender Mark Leiendecker asked for an additional $70,000 to $75,000 to fund an investigator in the Dorchester office and pay raises of 3 percent to 5 percent for employees in the Dorchester office.
He estimated the public defender handles between 80 percent and 85 percent of criminal cases in the county.
County Administrator Jason Ward said Wednesday that amount isn’t included in the budget.
Local Option Sales Tax
Council briefly discussed Wednesday the possibility of a local option sales tax.
The tax, abbreviated LOST, would be a 1 percent sales tax that would provide a credit to property owners on their property tax bills.
Charleston and Berkeley counties already have a local option sales tax, meaning any Dorchester resident who buys goods in those counties is helping to reduce their neighbors’ property taxes.
With the development near Wescott and at the Interstate 95 interchange, Dorchester could benefit from non-residents buying goods here and contributing to property tax relief, Byars said.
If council likes the idea of a local option sales tax, it would need to act fairly quickly to get it before the voters this year.
Council needs to pass a resolution recommending the tax, then voters would get their say in November.
Most municipalities are having municipal elections this November, but for the unincorporated parts of the county it would mean a special election.

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