County preparing leaner budget

WINNSBORO – Budget cuts, dipping into reserves and raising taxes emerged as early possible solutions to another projected multi-million dollar shortfall in Fairfield County’s budget. 

Still, county staff remained hopeful that federal aid, economic development and possibly selling county property could help the county patch budgetary gaps. 

In a recent budget meeting, County Administrator Jason Taylor said Fairfield is facing a $3.5 million shortfall in FY 2021-22. Projected revenues of $31.99 million fall well short of anticipated expenses of $35.5 million. 

In his budget letter to council, Taylor says the budget in its current form remains balanced though he said he couldn’t endorse it because the fiscal plan relies on once again raiding reserves to cover the $3.5 million shortfall. 

“I cannot recommend that the budget be passed by council in its present form,” Taylor said. 

Council chairman Moses Bell stated, without providing context, and inaccurately, that only in recent years has the county resorted to utilizing the fund balance to balance the budget, noting that almost no fund balance was used in 2014. He’s asking for a 10-15% budget reduction this year. 

“The only reason I bring that up is because it’s going in the wrong direction,” Bell said. “We cannot sustain a budget where the revenue is only 90 percent of expenses.”

As with last year, Fairfield County is feeling pinched by the cessation of construction activity at the failed V.C. Summer nuclear site. 

Taylor estimated the abandonment of work would cost Fairfield about $3 million in lost tax revenue. Similar losses occurred last budget year, necessitating the county to rely on reserves to balance the budget. 

“The budget presented has been stripped of almost all operating capital expenditures and pared down in recurring operating cost,” Taylor said. “While the county may get by one year not funding capital needs, those needs will have to be funded in coming years.“

Possible tax increase

Comptroller Anne Bass said the county is also facing rising costs tied to insurance, employee retirement and worker’s compensation. She said the county isn’t filling open positions. 

“Although we did cut expenses as much as we could, there were some things that increased that we don’t have a lot of control over,” Bass said. 

Fairfield County is contemplating a millage increase to balance the budget.

At last Tuesday’s budget meeting, staff said an increase of 5 mills would generate about $750,000 in added revenue. If enacted, it would be the first tax increase in at least five years.

Staff also discussed possibly billing the Town of Winnsboro and Fairfield County School District for trash collection and use of the county’s detention center. Those moves would save the county about $200,000, Bass said.

Proposed cuts

In its current form, the draft budget proposes $2.5 million in funding cuts. Here’s a breakdown of some of the major items:

Postpone roof replacements – $530,000

Remove discretionary agency allocations – $574,599

Suspend/reduce temporary personnel funding – $482,578

Furloughs (one week) – $275,500

Included within the temporary personnel funding is shutting down county recycling centers for two 12-hour days. Brad Caulder, the county’s human resources director, said doing so would save $138,000.

Regarding furloughs, Caulder said the county would encourage employees to spread their seven days over the course of an entire year to lessen the hardship.

Bell asked if money reserved for a fire station on River Road could be diverted to complete some roof replacement work.

“We’ve made some serious cuts here, but we have to think about the people. They are paying the bills,” he said.

Taylor said funds could be transferred, but the county wouldn’t be able to afford new fire trucks.

“If the building is built, will we have the trucks to go into the building?” Bell asked.

“Not the kind of trucks you would want, they will be older ones,” Taylor answered.

“But a new station, even with older fire engines will still help with the ISO ratings of the residents living around the new fire station. This has a direct impact on helping to lower those citizens insurance cost,” Taylor told the Voice.

Additional revenue sources

Taylor said Fairfield County will likely qualify for up to $4.2 million in federal assistance through the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package President Joe Biden recently signed into law, which could help balance the budget.

Other revenue options include selling surplus property associated with forfeited land, as well as, the old Behavioral Health building. Neither are reflected in the current budget draft.

Taylor also remained hopeful that as economic development ramps up, it will generate additional tax revenue.

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