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County Council, May 31

Council divided on tax increase for fiscal 2013
A fractious discussion on rules and procedures

Warwick Jones

Will there be a tax increase in Fiscal 2013? In preparing the budget, staff assumed there would be – not a large one, from 39.1 mills to 41.1 mills for the General Fund. This did not sit well with some Council members and the vote on the Budget was split 4 to 4 at last night’s Finance Committee meeting - Council members Schweers, Qualey, Sass and Condon voting against, and Council member Summey abstaining. Council member Summey was unable to attend the budget session on Friday last and he said he needed to reflect on the proposed millage increase. Presumably he will vote at the Council meeting on Tuesday evening when the budget will again be considered.

Staff has projected a 7% increase in disbursements (costs) in the General Fund for Fiscal 2013 to a projected $184.7 million. The increase reflects in part a $4.6 million increase in personnel costs – mainly a 2% COLA for staff voted on earlier this year, and higher staffing for Consolidated Dispatch and EMS. There was also a projected $1.1 million increase in fuel costs and a projected $5.9 million for capital equipment replacement, and other one-time costs. Press Download file to see summary.

Unfortunately, projected revenue for the General Fund was not expected to grow sufficiently to cover the higher costs. Property taxes and Fees were expected to rise as was Local Option Sales tax. But the increase from property taxes overall, from $73.9 million to $76.5 million, was not enough and there would be a projected shortfall of $2.8 million. Staff assumed that this hole could be plugged with the 2 mill tax increase taking projected Property Tax revenue to $79.3 million. They noted though that it was likely that the tax increase would not be a burden for those who owned and lived in their own homes. A rise in the Local Option Sales Tax was expected to cover the cost of the higher millage. Press Download file to see projections.

Staff also prepared 5 year projections of costs and revenues and drew attention to the expected continuation in the rise of costs but the lagging revenues. On the basis of these projections, the County may need to consider further millage increases in future years. Staff assumed an inflation rate and personnel cost increases of 3% a year. Press Download file to see projections.

The debate by full Council on Tuesday night should be lively. Those who voted against the Budget are likely to have some suggestions to avoid the millage increase. Those in favor are also likely to argue strongly against any cut in services if any cuts are proposed. Press Download file to see summary of appropriations for all the major County funds and Download file
for summary of millage rates.

Too much heat and no light
The issue of the County Attorney’s remuneration came up in last night’s Finance Committee – well, sort of. A casual observer would not be able to tell as the item on the agenda was described “to allow members to discuss a change in the Rules of Council that would make all standing committees, committees of the whole”.

The first to speak on the issue were Council members Schweers and Qualey. Both supported the ability of all Council members to be able to attend and vote at all subcommittee meetings. They also voiced dissatisfaction with the present rules that seemed to limit the ability of all Council members to vote on important issues. If an item is voted down on a subcommittee then it does not necessarily go on to the Finance Committee for consideration. This was wrong they said. (They could have added that the past action of the Policy/Rules Subcommittee had effectively blocked the Finance Committee from discussing the remuneration of the County Attorney)

The meeting thereafter was a melee. Council member Qualey made some strong suggestions that Chairman Pryor had acted inappropriately in setting agendas. Chairman Pryor rose to defend himself and then it just continued with County Attorney Dawson frequently called on to make an interpretation of the Council rules.

The discussion was heated, acrimonious, and inconclusive. Much of it revolved around the interpretation of rules relating to subcommittees, and the ways that these rules could be changed. It is beyond the ability of this writer, and we suspect a number of Council members to understand all of what was said. But we have to agree with Council member Summey who said that the Council was becoming a farce and made a comparison with the County School District Board (whose recent meetings have been highly fractious). He sadly noted the anger that had accompanied discussion and went on to say that some of the issues should have been resolved by the “parking lot committee”.

So how did it conclude? We are not sure. No vote was allowed on the issue last night but it seemed that the issue would be allowed to be placed on the agenda of a future Finance Committee meeting. The process would have to be in accordance with the present rules of Council, the Chairman said. And after the discussion on the issue last night, there is still confusion as to the interpretation of the rules.

Sea Island Greenway issue refuses to die
Remember the Sea Island Greenway - a highway to link the communities of Seabrook and Kiawah Islands to the intersection of Maybank Highway and River Roads? Its purpose was to make traveling over Johns Island to the Sea Islands faster and safer, and to lessen the traffic burden on River and Main roads and thereby improve the safety. Council debated its virtues in 2010 and gave it a “thumbs down”. A similar decision was made when the project was considered in earlier years.

Well, the issue may be back. Council was treated to a presentation by “community associations from Kiawah and Seabrook Islands”. Representatives of two churches on Johns Island also spoke of their support for the project. The speakers asked that the Council request that the project be placed on the Berkeley, Charleston, Dorchester Council of Government’s (BCDCOG) long range transportation plan for the region.

There was nothing in the presentation that had not been said before, at least in our recollection. Speakers pointed to the large number of people that traveled to and from the communities and the large number of people employed there. They noted the 21,000 potential new dwellings that could be created on Johns and Wadmallaw Islands. Something had to be done about the large and likely population increase. The existing roads would be very unsafe if nothing were done. And of all the options, the Sea Island Greenway was the cheapest and least intrusive option, the speakers said.

Council member Schweers reminded Council of previous discussions and voting on Council (See posting, County Council, August 13, 2010). His manner suggested the question as to why the project was again being considered. He was opposed to voting on the project at the meeting yesterday. He felt that the opponents of the Greenway should be given an opportunity to express their feelings. No vote was taken.

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