County revenue down, expenses up

WINNSBORO – After a year of robust industrial growth and budget surpluses, Fairfield County’s outlook is much more conservative in 2020-2021.

Declining tax revenues partially tied to the transfer of lands associated with the collapse of SCE&G and the new arrangement between Dominion and Santee-Cooper, looks to pinch next year’s budget, which council members discussed at a workshop Monday night.

“We do anticipate revenues being down considerably, by a million to a million and a half potentially,” County Administrator Jason Taylor said.

Taylor said the county will need to replenish reserves it typically spends on incentives and also matching state funds, further cramping the budget.

“We’re going to have to be more fiscally conservative this year,” Taylor said. “We are not proposing any capital investments of a large magnitude nor any large projects this year.”

Fairfield County’s net position surged by $1.9 million in the 2019-2020 fiscal year. Revenues alone were up about $507,000.

But with the budget tightening, next year’s budget will be heavily focused on providing essential services.

“It is always important that we protect our revenues so that we can provide our core services that keep people safe, our fire, our EMS, our sheriff’s department. We have to support those services,” Taylor said.

Monday’s budget workshop was live streamed via YouTube due to the coronavirus pandemic social distancing requirements. Another budget workshop has tentatively been scheduled for Monday, May 4 at 5:30 p.m.

At Monday’s workshop, some council members asked about the fund balance. Comptroller Anne Bass said the total fund balance has about $22 million, up about $1.33 million from last year.

However, the county expects to spend roughly $5.5 million from the fund balance to help meet expenses. It’s a practice the county otherwise prefers to avoid.

“We’ve been very fortunate in the past where we didn’t have to pull from it,” Bass said. “We certainly don’t want to make that dependence greater.”

Salary increases are a priority in next year’s budget, with an emphasis on lower tier employees, such as mechanics, corrections officers, dispatchers and heavy equipment operators, said Brad Caulder, the county’s Human Resource director.

Those positions, Caulder said, are extremely hard to fill because comparable positions in the private sector offer considerably higher pay. Offering higher raises to lower wage earners costs about the same as offering more modest increases across the board and is more appreciated than occasional one-time bonuses, he said.

“You’ve got a lot of industry paying $14, $15, $16 an hour. Our maintenance positions are nowhere near that,” Caulder said. “We can’t fill temporary spots. We would achieve a lot more this way.”

Council Chairman Neil Robinson and Councilman Moses Bell both liked the tiered approach to raises, with Robinson noting “It brings them up to a level playing field.”

 Lawsuit lifts legal costs

The proposed budget also includes an additional $100,000 in legal expenses, mostly in relation to a pending lawsuit at the Fairfield County Commerce Center.

In February, Fairfield County sued Alliance Consulting Engineers and Wiley Easton Construction Company relating to failed road and bridge work at the Commerce Center off Peach Road.

Councilman Jimmy Ray Douglas raised the issue early in the budget meeting.

“We need those sites open in the industrial park. Those roads and bridges need to be redone.” Douglas said.

Taylor pointed to the ongoing litigation [See ‘County sues over failed roads, bridges,’ p1], noting it would likely impact next year’s budget.

“That’s one of the things that you’ll see reflected in the budget. We do have considerably more in legal fees this time,” Taylor said. “That’s because we anticipate having to fully go to court with Alliance.”

 Bonuses, solicitor office salaries

In other budget matters, council members questioned two other compensation related proposals — longevity bonuses and solicitor’s office salaries.

The early budget draft calls for $50,000 for longevity bonuses to be divvied up among veteran employees.

Caulder said the bonuses have historically been written into past budgets and are paid out around Christmastime. He said some employees with two years of experience who technically didn’t qualify for the bonuses felt left out.

Councilman Douglas Pauley noted that longevity bonuses should only be paid to workers with longer tenure.

“I don’t see one year as longevity. I would ask that council consider a period of 10 years or five years,” Pauley said. “If you’re here a year or six months, you’re on probation. I would like to see that restructured.”

Council members also seemed lukewarm over a request from Solicitor Randy Newman, who’s requesting a $25,189 (28 percent) budget increase, according to budget records. The solicitor’s office also represents Chester and Lancaster counties, and receives additional funding from the state.

County leaders said the solicitor wants to establish a drug court and also create a salary ladder.

“This is something he brings up every year. The solicitor has been an advocate for his department, and he’s asking for additional wages to attract qualified applicants,” Taylor said. “That’s what he’s trying to do, to move people up as they prove themselves. We have pushed back on it in the past.”

Robinson was skeptical of the request.

“We’re cutting county agencies almost to the bare minimum and we have outside agencies coming in and requesting [funds],” he said.

Pauley agreed.

“It’s not the county’s fault that the state isn’t funding him like it should be,” Pauley said. “The state had a huge surplus this year. It’s not the county to pick up what the state’s not funding.”