Community Leans on Council on Eve of Budget Vote

FAIRFIELD – County Council gave the final approval to their 2013-2014 budget Monday night, a budget nearly 11 percent smaller than that of the previous fiscal year, weighing in at $33,440,757. The budget passed on a 6-1 vote, with Carolyn Robinson (District 2) casting the lone dissenting vote.

“That’s what District 2 wanted to do,” Robinson said after the meeting.

Robinson voted with the majority in approving the associated millage rates, which come in at 181.87 –  8.6 mills less than last year.

“Because it was a reduced rate,” Robinson explained. “We finally got something right.”

Although the public hearing on the budget was officially held April 22, Council got an earful from constituents prior to Monday’s vote, many of them angered over tax rates, as well as the County’s $24.06 million industrial development/recreation bond, passed April 15.

“I don’t think there was any coordination whatsoever between County Council and the School Board, that they would simultaneously pass $44 million worth of bonds, which will start in 2014,” said Oliver Johnson. “Spending is out of control. We have the third highest millage of any county in this state. We have the highest general fund budget per capita of any county in this state. We’ve got the eighth highest assessed property values per capita. We’ve got a fixation on the industrial park, we’ve poured money into it, we’ve taken acreage off the tax rolls, built spec buildings because the state says that’s the way to attract industry. Frankly, and I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think we’re going to attract industry. We need to go after retirees. Bring them in here with disposable income.”

Jeff Schaffer, of Dawkins, said he would like to see more accountability, as well as a refund to taxpayers.

“Stop spending and start improving,” Schaffer said. “If you’re a school teacher, you better be one who can show your class is improving, if not you won’t be in the budget next year. Same thing goes for the hospital and every other charity case us taxpayers take on. I would like to see a budget that is reduced by last year’s spending by 10 percent across the board, and that reduction I would like to see redistributed under the category of Fairfield taxpayers by sending us a refund check.”

Schafer also suggested imposing an “excise tax” on people who work in the county but who do not live here.

“If every employee who works in the county but does not live in the county paid a millage rate, we would pay less and they would pay for the services that I and others provide for by paying those taxes,” Schaffer said.

Betty Scott Frazier Bell said she sees a mass exodus from Fairfield County every day between 3:30 and 5 p.m.

“People who are working in Fairfield County, driving Mercedes and SUVs, all leaving the county with salaries they are making in Fairfield,” Bell said, “and you are planning a new industrial park in Blythewood’s back yard.”

The industrial park, Bell said, was a mistake, and the bond money could be better spent elsewhere, if at all.

“To put up a building before you had water and sewer?” Bell asked rhetorically. “You put in an industrial park that is not even a certified site and you’re asking for a little over $20 million to remedy that mistake. Richland County should be writing you a thank you note for putting in the infrastructure for their residents.”

After the vote, Bell’s comments, and those of her colleagues, drew an impassioned response from Council. David Ferguson, Council Chairman, said that the industrial park was indeed a Class-A certified park. He also said that there was no correlation between the School District’s bond and that of the County. But most of all, Ferguson stood firm on the County’s policy of industrial development.

“When you have a stable environment and you have a job, you may can stand at that microphone and tell me we don’t need jobs in Fairfield County,” Ferguson said. “When we’ve got 11 percent unemployment, and in a lot of cases husband and wife unemployed, don’t bother to tell me we don’t need jobs. If you talk to those people who are unemployed, they’re not going to agree with you. And I don’t agree with you, either. I would be very disappointed in the Council if I was sitting out there and you were sitting up here and you were not trying to get jobs for me to work at and better my family. I don’t think anybody in our county wants us not to be trying to bring gainful employment to this county.”