Road Fee Stays in Budget

Council Balks at Funding Alternatives

WINNSBORO – A move by three freshmen County Council members to kill a proposed road maintenance fee recommended for the 2015-2016 budget failed to garner enough support during work session talks Monday night, with the majority of Council members looking unfavorably on alternative methods to raise the funds.

Talk of the fee first surfaced during Council’s May 7 budget work session, and came at the suggestion of the County Transportation Committee (CTC), according to Milton Pope, Interim County Administrator. The proposed $5 a year on personal vehicles and $10 a year on commercial vehicles, which would be added to Fairfield County car tax bills, would raise an estimated $123,570 to provide maintenance on County improved roads and dirt roads.

The fee was included in the second reading of the budget, which cleared Council on May 11. Councilman Kamau Marcharia (District 4), while voting with the majority on second reading, indicated some hesitancy to fully support the fee.

“You can call it a ‘fee’ if you want to,” Marcharia said after the May 11 meeting, “but it’s still a tax.”

But by the May 26 work session, Marcharia was fully on board.

“I want Council to know that I do support it after studying it for a while,” Marcharia said. “From what I understand in this county, we have over 300 miles of dirt roads. That’s enough to take you to Washington, D.C. and probably halfway back. I think it’s a service to the community to have this service.”

The effort to squash the fee and replace it with savings from within the budget came from Council members Walter Larry Stewart (District 3), Dan Ruff (District 1) and Billy Smith (District 7). Stewart, during the May 26 session, said the road maintenance fee violated Council’s promise of a “no tax, no fee increase” budget.

“But we have passed a fee increase on that road use situation,” Stewart said. “So we either need to go back and find some money to cover that or we have violated the original guidance.”

Chairwoman Carolyn Robinson (District 2) noted that there was a difference between a tax and a fee, a legal difference also pointed out by Pope following second reading. A ‘tax,’ Pope said, goes into the general fund of a governing entity, to be comingled with other funds and used at the discretion of that entity. A ‘fee,’ he said, is assigned to the specific use for which it was adopted by ordinance.

Pope added on May 26 that, while he had told Council at the outset of the budgeting process that a responsible budget would be possible without a tax increase, the fee was a different matter.

“The fee was something that came about primarily after the CTC meeting,” Pope said, “and we were asked to invest and create some kind of fund . . . to be able to treat these secondary roads we’re improving.”

“But it’s still an increase,” Stewart said.

Ruff said that although he saw the need for road maintenance fund, he would rather find the funds from within the existing budget.

“We need to create a fund to maintain roads. I get that,” Ruff said. “I just don’t want to burden taxpayers more. If we could get it from within, I’m OK with that.”

Pope and staff were tasked with finding those potential savings, which he presented to Council Monday. The cuts included a reduction of nearly $40,000 in fuel expenses for County vehicles, as well as a reduction in unemployment insurance by $10,000. Pope also said allocations to the Good Samaritan House, the Board of Disabilities and Special Needs, the American Red Cross and the Chameleon Learning Center had been pared back to 2014-2015 levels.

“I see nothing wrong with this, with the understanding as we go through the year, if we have to go back and re-look these, then we’ll do it,” Stewart said. “But as it stands here, this looks good to me.”

Councilman Marion Robinson (District 5), however, said fuel cuts made him uncomfortable.

“Just in Fairfield County today, the prices went up 10 cents a gallon,” he said. “If it came up during the year and this stuff spikes like I think it’s going to do, where are we going to get that money from?”

Pope said additional cuts in spending could handle a small increase in fuel prices, but any significant spike would require Council to revisit the budget.

Both Marcharia and Councilwoman Mary Lynn Kinley (District 6) questioned the wisdom of cutting into social programs in order to offset the fee, and both Council members said they had received no negative feedback on the proposed fee after discussions with their constituents.

“The Good Samaritan House, they’re the only ones in town who give money to folks who need it for their utilities,” Kinley said. “There are a lot of good services here. The Board of Disabilities, they run a very, very tight budget. I hate for us to cut these services and disturb this many accounts in this county. I feel like we need to leave that alone, let everybody pay this $5 or $10 charge and take care of our roads and move on. We don’t need to upset the lives of a lot of other people.”

But Ruff and Stewart pointed out that the proposed changes to the allocations were not cuts.

“We’re not cutting their budgets,” Stewart said. “All we’re doing is freezing them at the 2015 level. We’re letting the stay the same as they were.”

When Smith asked why allocations of $5,000 each to the Boys and Girls Club, Harvest Hope and the Eau Claire Health Cooperative had not been touched, Pope said, “The simple answer is that when we got to the number $123,570, then I stopped.”

“I’m not so sure we shouldn’t go and do the same with all of them,” Ruff said. “Make it fair.”

Smith agreed, suggesting the $15,000 could go back into the fuel account.

Council was facing difficult and unpleasant choices, Chairwoman Robinson said; choices she blamed on unfunded mandates handed down to the County from the state. The CTC, she said, is appointed by the local legislative delegation, and is in control of funds raised by the state’s gas tax.

“We’ve been told there was no more money to go back and resurface any of the roads,” Robinson said. “Guess who’s the closets person who’s going to hear the complaints about these resurfaced roads? County Council. And our hands are tied. If the state does not soon put some money into these county and state roads, we’re going to be back to horse-and-buggy days where it’s nothing but dirt again.

“Five dollars won’t even buy a pack of cigarettes,” she said. “It might buy a good cold beer. A lottery ticket. You’re talking about (paying it) one time in 365 days.”

With the final consensus split evenly between Smith, Ruff and Stewart in opposition and Marcharia, Kinley and Marion Robinson in favor, Chairwoman Robinson threw in with the proponents of the fee.

“And I know that I’m fixing to get the seventh threat from somebody in here about my election,” the Chairwoman, after her decision, said.

Third reading on the budget, which will include the road maintenance fee, will be held during Council’s June 8 meeting.