Board approves county’s budget

Published 2:12 am Thursday, July 1, 2010

Staff Writer

Beaufort County taxpayers face a property-tax rate of 50 cents per $100 valuation under the county’s 2010-2011 budget adopted Tuesday by the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners.
The new tax rate and budget take effect today, the beginning of the new fiscal year.
Although the property-ax rate is 10 cents per $100 valuation lower than the rate for fiscal year 2009-2010, it misses the commissioners’ goal of a revenue-neutral tax rate by 1.8 cents per $100 valuation. Revenue generated by one cent of the new rate will be used by the county to pay $543,200 in interest on a $4.8 million loan from First Citizens Bank to finance the purchase of properties owned by the Beaufort Regional Health System.
As a prelude to their budget deliberations, the commissioners unanimously approved the purchase plan and loan agreement.
The health system, if its Board of Commissioners agrees to sell the properties, will use the proceeds from the sale to pay $1.8 million on an existing loan, reimburse the county $1.57 million for its debt payment and use the remainder as operating capital.
The commissioners voted 4-3 to approve the $52.5 million county budget, which leaves largely intact the recommended budget presented by County Manager Paul Spruill a little more than a month ago. As part of that vote, the commissioners also approved budgets and tax rates for the county’s special-service districts — including fire and emergency-medical-service districts for eight county townships and the county’s water department and emergency 911 budgets.
Commissioners Jay McRoy, Ed Booth, Al Klemm and Jerry Langley voted to approve the budget. Commissioners Robert Cayton, Stan Deatherage and Hood Richardson voted against it.
Deatherage and Richardson said they opposed the budget because it does not contain enough cost-cutting measures and, they said, uses $2,191,701 in savings to help balance the budget. They contend that will virtually guarantees a tax increase in the 2011-2012 fiscal year.
Cayton said he voted against the budget because he promised Beaufort County taxpayers a revenue-neutral tax rate of 49 cents per $100 valuation and he wanted to keep his promise.
Cayton also said that if county taxpayers have to bear the allocation of one cent on the new tax rate to boost Beaufort County Medical Center’s finances, that burden should come in the form of a separate assessment.
The vote to adopt the budget came after hours of often heated debate, a series of several quick, failed efforts to cut the budget and an initial failed effort to approve the budget. The speed and intensity of the debate left two commissioners so flustered they voted against a proposal which, in interviews after the meeting, they said they supported.
The board approved the 2010-2011 spending plan only after it approved 5-2 a motion by McRoy calling for Beaufort Regional Health System to present a recommendation for a merger plan to the county commissioners within 120 days.
Booth and Deatherage cast the only dissenting votes, but in interviews after the meeting, the two said they supported the motion.
“I thought we were voting on the budget,” Deatherage said in explaining his vote.
As a result of changes made Tuesday night, the 2010-2011 budget is $736,797, or about 1.4 percent, more than the county’s 2009-2010 fiscal year budget.
The budget approved by the commissioners is $1.03 million less than the $53.5 million budget recommended by Spruill because it does not contain a 3 cents per $100 valuation “Hospital Debt Reserve.”
It calls for about $620,000 in what Spruill had described as “aggressive cuts” to help offset some $916,182 in increased spending, including $592,150 for Beaufort County Schools, $198,032 in employee retirement contributions mandated by the state and $126,000 for employee health-insurance premiums.
The cuts also include a $7,350 decrease in spending on maintenance at the Beaufort County Economic Development Commission’s Skills Center to offset $5,000 in spending for county memberships in three local chambers of commerce.
The cuts include a 5 percent reduction in the staff at the Beaufort County Department of Social Services, which brings that department in line with cuts sustained by other departments during the just-ended fiscal year. The proposal eliminates four jobs at the department, including two that are currently filled for savings of about $135,000.
The department also sustains a cut of $134,000 in foster-care expenditures in the recommended budget as a result of the departmental success in placing foster children in less expensive housing options.
The cuts also include an across-the-board 1.92 percent salary cut for all county employees, which will be offset by four additional vacation days that will be added, one day at a time, at Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day holidays. A fifth holiday, Presidents Day, will be added in February. That results in a savings of about $182,000. This cut exempts sheriff’s patrol deputies, telecommunications personnel and detention-center personnel.
The budget includes a decrease in culture and recreation appropriations of $161,000 because of completing the final payment owed to Agape Dental Clinic in the just-ended fiscal year’s budget.
The new budget includes only about a third of departmental expansion requests. It includes $63,102 for the purchase of three vehicles for the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office instead of the requested $231,374 for 11 vehicles; $46,584 for maintenance and repairs to public buildings instead of the $201,300 requested; $9,516 for equipment purchases at the jail instead of $44,027 requested; $6,620 for equipment and other purchases by animal control instead of $27,840 requested and $67,718 for equipment and building maintenance for Social Services instead of $120,292 requested.
The budget includes $13.9 million in funding for the Beaufort County Schools as required by an interlocal agreement signed by the commissioners and Beaufort County Board of Education in 2007.
It includes $2.1 million in funding for Beaufort County Community College, an increase of 1.4 percent over the just-ended fiscal year. Commissioners, in earlier action, voted to seek a refund of any savings BCCC realizes in replacing a roof on its Continuing Education Building this year.