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County Council, January 8

Targeted budget cut of $7.5 million achieved for FY2009 – but is it enough?
Party lines split over election of Chair and Vice Chair
Warwick Jones

The most important item on yesterday’s agenda was the unfinished business of 2008. - spending cuts to balance the Fiscal Year 2009 budget. Council achieved its objective but there were warnings that more surgery may be necessary and the excisions deeper.

Council also seated 2 new members yesterday - Elliott Summey and Victor Rawle. Council member Summey is the son of the Mayor of North Charleston and has held no other elected position in his career. Council member Rawle was a judge on the Circuit Court until his retirement in 2003 and was also a member of the SC Legislature for 4 years some years ago.

New members likely to be strong presences
As they “find their feet”, new members of Council could normally be expected to make little contribution to discussions in early meetings. But both the new members participated freely in discussions, and a motion by Council member Summey was applauded and passed by Council at the conclusion of the discussion on budget cuts. We expect the new members to be strong presences on Council.

Council member Pryor elected Chair
Council member Rawle received immediate attention at the opening of the special session of Council to elect the Chairman and Deputy Chair. Council member Darby nominated Council member Pryor but Council member Rawle sought to amend this motion to add that Council member Condon is appointed Deputy Chair. After some discussion and legal opinion, the motion was ruled out of order. Votes had to be taken on the Chair and Vice Chair separately. The vote for Chair went to Council member Pryor, with all in favor expect Council member Schweers, who abstained

For Vice Chair, Council member Thurmond was nominated by Council member Darby. Council member Condon was nominated by Council member Rawle. Council member Thurmond was elected with 6 votes. The 3 votes for Council member Condon were those of Rawle, Condon and Inabinett.

Party lines split on Vice Chair election
Although Democrats represent the majority on Council, the party line split in the election of the Vice Chair. Council member Thurmond is a Republican and received the votes of Council members Pryor and Darby, both Democrats.

We can only speculate as to why there was a party split. Firstly we would note that there have been issues amongst the Democrats as to voting along party lines. Thankfully, party lines are irrelevant to most issues before Council. But on those that were, Council member Condon has been critical of her fellow members for taking a simetimes opposite view. Secondly, Council member Condon has been a conspicuous supporter of Mayor Riley. It was no surprise that Mayor Riley canvassed County Council members to vote for Council member Condon for Chair or Deputy Chair. Considering his unilateral action in moving the Urban Growth Boundary in 2007 and undermining County Planning efforts, Council members had little reason to respect the Mayor. Indeed, his ardent support may have been counter productive.

And for those of us who like to connect the dots…but can’t. We note that Council member Rawle has a multi million dollar law suit against the City of Charleston for changing the zoning that stopped his family from developing property on Johns Island. (See report City Council July 17, 2007).

Will costs need to be cut even more to balance the budget?
Council member McKeown has played a leading role on Council in working with staff to balance the FY 2009 budget. He wondered out very loud mid way through the discussion on cost cutting whether Council had gone far enough. Staff was summing up its discussion on how to complete the $7.5 million excision of costs to bring the budget back into balance. Looking at the state of the economy, he suggested that it might be necessary “to find another $2, $3 or $4 million” over the next few months. He asked staff to be mindful of the situation

Deputy Administrator Bustraan told Council that decisions made up until the last Council meeting in 2008 had cut about $6.3 million from expenses. Another $1.2 million was needed to achieve the $7.5 million Staff made the following recommendations

• Appointed and Council Agencies spending cut by 2% - $443,000
• Sheriff Department cuts - $153.000
• Probate Court 1.7% budget reduction - $33,000
• Non departmental - $148,000
• Unpaid holiday for employees - $300,000
• Transfer from Equipment replacement fund - $109,000

Most concern about unpaid holiday for employees
There was a lot of discussion on all of the items but most was directed to the unpaid holiday for employees on Presidents Day. Nobody was very happy about this and staff was directed to look for alternatives One of the alternatives might be a request for Elected Officials and their Departments to volunteer to reduce budgets by 2%. It had to be a request to volunteer. If the Council forced the issue, the departments ran the risk of having State funding cut.

Council member Summey suggested that the Council still vote for the package as presented by staff. Employees would be alerted and not surprised if the plan were implemented. In the meantime, a letter would be written to the elected officials seeking their support. Depending on the success of the request, the decision to not pay staff for the holiday could be reversed.

Staff gone about as far as they can go
But from the statements of Council member McKeown and County Administrator Canterbury, staff has gone about as far as it could without excessive blood letting. Mr. McKeown asked staff whether $300,000 would be the daily savings if all emplyees were put on furlough or forced to take unpaid holidays. Yes it was – at least for the General Fund.

For us who read the media comments on the economy, it would seem a strong likelihood that Council will have to revisit the 2009 budget and County employees will be forced to make some sacrifice. And then in a few months, there will be the task of shaping the FY 2010 budget. Some Council members might like an opportunity to take unpaid leave!

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