Raised millage, deep cuts cast shadow over Fairfield budget

WINNSBORO – A proposed tax increase, cutting county departments by 10 percent, and other major budgetary matters came up during a Fairfield County Council work session Monday night.

Described by one council member and others in attendance as “chaotic,” the meeting lasted over three hours.

Taxpayers, however, didn’t get to see any of it.

An agenda for the work session stated the proceedings would be live streamed, a customary procedure since the beginning of the pandemic. But the stream wasn’t available, and it was not uploaded to the county’s YouTube channel when the meeting ended around 9:30 p.m. Monday.

By Tuesday morning, an 11-second, audio only excerpt had been uploaded, but the clip was no longer there by Tuesday evening. Nothing had been posted as of Wednesday’s press deadline.

County Chairman Moses Bell couldn’t be reached for comment.

As to the missing meeting recording, Councilman Doug Pauley voiced dismay that taxpayers couldn’t watch the council as they conducted the public’s business.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Pauley said the meeting lasted at least 3 ½ hours.

The meeting opened with County Administrator Malik Whitaker reading a copy of his budget letter to the council.

The meeting then devolved into a disjointed discussion about the budget, among council members who jumped from one topic to another until Pauley intervened and asked why the department heads were all asked to be there if they were not going to be given the chance to talk about their department needs.

“I wanted to hear from every single department head. I didn’t care if it took till midnight. We are there as council members to represent the citizens and the employees,” Pauley said.

In this budget letter, Whitaker proposed raising taxes by 4.7 mills or cutting 10% to “non-essential accounts.” Pauley said his understanding is the cuts are across the board, impacting most county departments.

“With a County Council mandate to cut recurring county government operating cost and reduce the County government’s reliance on unassigned fund balance to produce a balanced budget, Fairfield County Government Administration is presenting for your review, analysis, and consideration, two options for proposed FY 2023 budget cuts that reduce the deficit,” the letter states.

Pauley and budget documents also state that the county lacks a formal capital improvement plan.

Meantime, the county is facing staffing shortages and aging equipment, which Pauley said seriously impacted public safety. Department heads came forward to talk about their needs – a fire truck recently caught fire responding to a call and the department can’t afford to order a new one. Staffing shortages at the detention center contributed to an officer being injured while transporting a detainee. Theresa Lawson, Director of the Detention Center said that two officers are needed to transport a detainee, but with last year’s cuts, only one was available for a recent transfer and because of that, the officer was injured. She said the Sheriff’s deputies had to be called.

“These departments are struggling monetarily to run their departments efficiently and safely,” Pauley said. “The budget we were presented from administration doesn’t include vehicles. It doesn’t include a lot of positions as well. You’re not finding any fire trucks, patrol cars, or ambulances.”

In a budget memo, Whitaker said department heads were asked to develop a list of capital needs over the past five years and submit them as part of their budget requests.

In the short term, Whitaker proposes covering capital costs from other funds, such as federal stimulus money.

Fire services alone says it needs nearly $2 million in FY2023, noting one truck is 42 years old and two others are 35 years old, according to budget documents.

EMS anticipates needing $900,000 in FY2023 to replace three vehicles and another $700,000 in FY2024 to replace two more, documents show.

Other steps Whitaker said the county is eying include moving 1.5 mills from debt service to the general fund and adding 1 mill of tax to the Library fund.

Whitaker said rising gas prices, retirement costs and insurance have created challenges in presenting a balanced budget.

“The work needed to getting [sic] a balanced budget is going to be challenging and will require the work of county council, administration, and department directors,” Whitaker said.

Calls for departmental cuts follow the council’s ruling majority decision to spend $1.5 million in previously unbudgeted money last fiscal year on a mini park in Blackstock, upgrades to Willie Lee Robinson Park, and roof repairs to the Department of Health and Human Services building.

The same council majority later voted for a lease agreement with Dominion Energy on land for another recreation park without budgeting for insurance, equipment, utilities and other associated costs.

Monday night’s grim budget forecast for the county came less than 48 hours before the county was slated to break ground on a $2.5 million recreation center Bell fiercely lobbied to fund over other needs out of the $99 million Dominion settlement. Pauley said the rec center is further proof of wasteful spending that’s politically motivated.

“What’s disturbing to me is how Chairman Bell could sit up there yesterday, and then tomorrow have a groundbreaking ceremony on a $2.5 million recreation center when we are robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Pauley said.

“We got a $99 million settlement [from Dominion Energy] and five months later we’re at the bottom of the barrel. That’s a problem with our leadership’s priorities,” he said.

Comments

  1. JEFF SCHAFFER says

    2.5 MILLION REC CENTER, WHY??? WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH THESE 5 COUNCIL MEMBERS ARE THEY THAT DUMB.? THEY CAN’T BALANCE A BUDGET BUT THEY CAN SPEND IT LIKE ITS NOT THEIRS! AND MAKE THINGS BETTER FOR WHO?

  2. Darrell Barnez says

    Mt. Zion project didn’t have a million dollars plus for bleachers or any equipment for gym, toilet paper holders, signs inside or outside or any office equipment included in any budget so why would a new empty park need to budget for equipment this year? I see it as banking land for use in the future. Insurance for a park with only walking paths at best to start will be very cheap until equipment is added.

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