Fairfield County Council blasts complaints

WINNSBORO – Fairfield County Council members are pushing back against criticisms that little progress is being made on rou­tine fiscal, administrative and other county matters.

Specifically, residents have railed against the council over thin agendas, tardy audits, lack of transparency, not working to­ward filling the vacant County Administrator post and failure to move forward in the last four months toward the construction of a waste water treatment plant.

On Monday night, council members said the criticisms are unfair, and further derail efforts to move Fairfield County forward.

One council member told The Voice that the council members’ comments on the issue were co­incidental, that their prepared remarks were not discussed or coordinated ahead of time.

Councilwoman Peggy Swear­ingen was the first to speak during council time saying the most pressing issue holding Fair­field back is lack of progress on a wastewater treatment plant since the formation of a joint wa­ter and sewer commission four years ago.

Citizen complaints, she said, hinder Fairfield’s ability to move forward.

“We need to stop complaining about the small stuff. There’s a much bigger problem here – county growth,” she said. “We get a whole lot of calls. We hear public comments about what you don’t like, what we should be doing and how we should do it.”

“In the last four months, we’ve had a mountain to climb,” said Councilman Clarence Gilbert. “We’ve slipped a few times, but we’ve gotten up and climbed again.”

Those comments and others came as Fairfield prepares to enter a fifth month without having submitted its annual audit, which was due in December.

Fairfield also hasn’t been forthcoming about what steps it is taking to fill the vacant County Administrator position. Laura Johnson has served as interim administrator since January.

Residents seized on both issues during public comments.

Ridgeway resident Randy Bright, said the council “hit a trifecta.”

In addition to the audit and administrator issues, Bright said the county hasn’t adequately planned for the budget process. He called upon council members to contact the former CFO of Fairfield Memorial Hospital for help and to mimic their approach to producing monthly financial reports – balance sheet, income statement, etc.

“I’m tired of flying blind financially, and that crashed us this last two years,” Bright said. “We still have no idea where we are financially.”

District 2 resident Don Goldblock said Fairfield could emulate York County, which he said earned accolades for its approach to financial reporting.

“Finish the current audit. It sounds promising, but give them a deadline. If they don’t get it done, tell them they’re gone,” Goldblock said.

Gilbert vociferously defended staff, saying employees are working diligently to complete the audit.

“Our present administration has been working countless hours working to restore the stability of our government and financial situation,” Gilbert said. “Pray for us instead of finding faults. I am sure you haven’t been successful in all of your endeavors.”

Council members have told The Voice that staff has been trying to straighten out the financials without the assistance of a professional service.

State law requires counties to submit their annual audits by December. The 2023 audit likely won’t be finalized and submitted until mid-May, said Johnson.

This year’s audit is late due to several factors, mainly due to multi-million dollar adjustments in March and a massive data dump by the finance department in January.

This is the second consecutive year Fairfield has been several months late preparing the annual audit and submitting it to the state.

Counties late with their audits risk having the state withhold funds until the paperwork is submitted. Johnson confirmed the state is presently withholding funds, but an exact amount was unavailable.

In 2022, the state withheld $1.5 million from Fairfield until the audit was delivered in April of that year.

“If we get it all in by May 8, I’m going to ask that the state release [the withheld funds] to us then,” she said.

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