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County Council, February 14

Will help fund beach renourishment at Wild Dunes but with conditions
A balanced budget for fiscal 2008 despite lower-than-projected revenue
Warwick Jones

The provision of funds for beach renourishment on the Isle of Palms (IOP) was the major item on tonight’s Finance Committee meeting. The Committee approved a grant of $900,000 from the Accommodation Fee Fund to help a beach renourishment project. But the approval came with conditions. The residents of the Wild Dunes Community must agree to provide $6.1 million of the $9.9 million estimated cost, and that a request be made that the Community make some provision for parking and access to the beach by the public. Should the cost of the renourishment fall short of the estimate, the County was to be the first reimbursed.

Not too much enthusiasm
Not all Council members were enthusiastic about the proposal. Both Council members Inabinett and Thurmond warned of the precedent that was being set. Council member Thurmond noted that the both Kiawah and Seabrook had met all the costs of beach renourishment over the years. They could now be expected to turn to the County for some funding.

Council member Pryor took issue with the fact that the public did not have access to the beach through Wild Dunes as it was a closed community. The County Administrator pointed out that the beach was public property but access to it was not possible for the public through Wild Dunes. Council member Schweers was uneasy about making public access through Wild Dunes a condition of the grant but did not take issue that a request be made.

Council members Schweers and McKeown were the more forceful advocates for the grant. Both represent areas in the northern part of the County. They and others noted that Wild Dunes contributed over $500,000 to the Accommodation Fee in fiscal 2007. In this light, the one-time request for $900,000 from the IOP for the project was not unreasonable. Council member Condon also remarked at the loss of property taxes if some of the buildings along the beach front were destroyed.

Council member Darby, who was amongst those lacking enthusiasm, noted that only a few weeks ago, Councilmember Schweers successfully moved that Accommodation Fee distributions be discussed only twice a year. After Council agreed to this policy, Council member Schweers was asking for a distribution from the Fund. Chairman Scott acknowledged the irony of this.

Councilmember Schweers said that if the IOP had known about the change in County policy it would have acted sooner and it was unfair to penalize the town or the project.

As it stands, the cost of the project is estimated at $9.9 million of which the Wild Dunes residents will pay $6.1 million. They have yet to approve this amount which represents $1500 per household but the Mayor of the IOP was confident that the levy would be approved. The IOP is to provide $1.9 million, SC DHEC $1 million, and the County $900,000. According to the Mayor of the IOP, work is ready to begin almost immediately.

Seniors to be able to work off property taxes
Allowing seniors to work off part of their County property taxes also provoked some discussion. The Finance Committee was asked to approve a pilot scheme to test a program. Such a program existed in some other cities in particular Aiken. In principle, the objective seemed good and would lessen the burden on financially stretched seniors even though they would be “paid” the equivalent of the minimum wage - $6.55 an hour

But what would be the cost to the County? Could suitable positions be found? So many tasks need to be performed by trained personnel. Was it worthwhile spending large amounts of time training seniors? How many jobs existed where little training was necessary? So not only was there the cost of providing staff for training and supervision, there was also the issue of payroll taxes. And not mentioned was the fact that the property taxes saved by the seniors would effectively become income in the eyes of the IRS and subject to tax.

Yes, said the County Administrator, all too true, But it was only a pilot plan that was under consideration. The experience gained would allow Council to better judge the efficacy of such a program.

Budget expected to remain in balance in Fiscal 2008
And the good news! Staff expects the County to meet budget expectations for the full fiscal year. The slow down in the economy, the reduction in the issue of building permits and RMC revenues has taken a toll and Staff estimates a $3.1 million shortfall in its revenue projections for the General Fund. But at the same time, there have been cost savings, largely related to personnel. These savings should amounts $3.1 million for the full year. So the budget will remains balanced, it seems.

Staff let slip that from its perspective, the economy did not seem to be getting any better. It seems to us that unless there is some improvement, Fiscal 2008 may prove tough for the County. Revenue growth may be stunted with little opportunity to reduce costs.

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