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County Council April 30

A tax increase in 2010 or not?
Long deliberations over other minor matters

Warwick Jones

The Finance Committee's agenda suggested a long session. Deliberations over some minor issues ensured that it was. So when it came to the most important item, an overview of the 2010 Budget, most members were showing signs of fatigue - levity and irritation. An indication as to whether County residents will face a higher tax payout in 2010 will be given at the Council meeting on Tuesday

A hardly worthwhile program
The session opened with a half hour discussion as to the Citizens Tax Work Off Program. The program was introduced late last year to allow senior citizens to work off part of their property tax liability. We concede the purpose was noble but when staff revealed that the program cost $34,000 but only $7000 was paid to seniors, we thought it was a certain candidate for euthanasia. Indeed, staff seemed to think so too, at least initially. Council member McKeown seemed upset that it was not very successful and sought to have the matter considered again at a later date. Council member Schweers and others questioned the program and wondered whether it was very efficient considering the time it took staff to train the seniors. It took the Committee half an hour to wind up the discussion, agreeing to suspend the program but reassess its worth next year. Lordy, if discussion over such a small item takes so long, weeks could be spent on budget deliberations.

Support but no cash for new farmers’ market
And then there was the request for funding from the Accommodation Tax for a farmers’ market at Hollywood, and an arcane discussion as to “permanent” power and Certificate of Occupancy for new houses. As to the former, Council member Inabinett and County Register Mesne Conveyance Lybrand addressed the Committee and requested $35,000 from Accommodation Tax funds to pay for signage, a web site and advertising. Most Council members applauded the concept – to allow small farmers, hurt in the economic downturn to sell fresh produce - but nobody supported it enthusiastically. Council member Condon suggested $5000 but the suggestion went nowhere. One Council member suggested that if it were not for the stature of the two sponsors, the request would go nowhere. He also said that there were no funds available from the Accommodation Tax and the requests should be considered, along with others, by the Visitors Bureau, according to Council policy. Nobody questioned as to whether the spending would qualify for Accommodation Tax funding, seemingly accepting the opinion of Mr. Lybrand that the farmers’ market would attract tourists We wonder how many “heads would find beds” because of the market. The Finance Committee said that the Council staff may help the foundation of the market, but voted no cash.

Building issue confuses members, and us
And then we had the long discussion over the issue of a Certificate of Occupancy to builders and the timing in relation to the connection to the power grid. It was a comic performance and some Council members were getting visibly irritated with the lack of progress. Council member McKeown harshly criticized staff for not promptly passing on a letter from the SCE&G to the Homebuilders Association. The harshness prompted Council member Thurmond to mildly admonish the Council member, suggesting the tone of his criticism was not warranted.

Originally, there seemed two principal protagonists. But after discussion and questioning, Council members (and some members of the public) were hard pressed to see the difference between the sides and whether there was an issue. The Homebuilders Association was arguing for a change in Council policy to bring it line with other jurisdictions. A letter from the SCE&G asked that the status quo be maintained. And then Council member Summey made a motion which suggested he understood it all. And taking his lead, all members voted in approval. We wonder whether most Council members knew and understood what they were voting for. The shaking of heads of some staff members suggest our uncertainty was shared. We suspect Council members just wanted to put the issue to bed.

Budget Overviews
And finally there were the budget overviews. Fiscal 2009 will end this month and staff made some proposals to ensure that the budget would be balanced. These suggestions were accepted by Council after limited discussion. But discussion of the 2010 budget was long.

Staff was asking Council for some guidance as they begin the determination of the 2010 budget. It had already indicated that the next fiscal year would be tough and that further belt tightening would be necessary. Staff had prepared a preliminary budget for perusal by Council but wanted guidance as to whether its assumptions were acceptable. For some members, they were not.

As staff has noted, the problem with 2010 is that sales tax revenues are expect to fall and because of this, the relief that homeowners get from the sales tax credit to property taxes will be down in 2010. Staff estimated that the fall in the sales tax revenue contribution would amount to $10.5 million. So if millage rates were kept the same, tax payers would still have to fund $10.5 million because of the lower sales tax credit. The increase in the property tax would amount to $15 per $100,000 of assessed value, according to Chairman Pryor.

Should Council reduce millage rates in 2010?
Council member Thurmond suggested that property owners were effectively facing a tax increase, even if millage rates stayed the same. He suggested that staff prepare a budget on the basis that there is no tax increase - in effect cutting $10.5 million from the budget by reducing millage rates. Staff assumed spending in the 2010 budget a $160 million, so a cut of $10.5 million would be a significant 6%.

We suspect that some Council members would have supported Council member Thurmond’s suggestion but, led by Chairman Pryor, Council decided to review the budget as prepared by staff and discuss it at the Council meeting on Tuesday evening. Besides, the Finance Committee meeting was dragging heavily after 3 hours of session. We all had had enough!

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