COLUMN: Beyond the County general fund
In a previous column, I discussed Aiken County’s $52 million General Fund budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year.
The County’s total revenues and appropriations this year, however, total $120 million. What makes up the $68 million difference?
The General Fund contains expenditures associated with the day-to-day operations of Aiken County.
This includes the Sheriff’s Office, detention center, judges and magistrates, public works, emergency services, animal control, planning and development, public libraries, parks and recreation, and a host of other familiar activities.
County Council has considerable discretion in managing these departments, and the revenue funding these departments (property taxes, fees and fines, sales and services, licenses and permits, state support, etc.) can cover a variety of tasks.
Therefore, these activities are lumped into the General Fund.
The $68 million outside of the General Fund is split into 27 smaller funds of varying size and function, averaging $2.5 million apiece this year.
These separate funds are usually established to segregate appropriations by their specific, dedicated revenue streams.
While this is good and acceptable accounting, it complicates budgetary discussions. It’s also easy to focus solely on the General Fund while losing track of these smaller funds.
When examining these funds, two key points must be understood.
First, while the summation of all funds is $120 million, this total includes double-counts within the budgets.
Whenever dollars are transferred between funds within the budget, each transfer creates both “revenues” and “expenditures” in the impacted funds.
For example, $650,000 is budgeted in the USC AikenGFund for Convocation Center debt service. It’s then transferred to the debt service fund for payment. The $650,000 is counted in both funds.
More than $6.5 million is accounted for in these “interfund transfers.” Therefore, the $120 million budget contains less than $114 million of actual expenditures.
Second, the County budget includes “pass through” expenditures that are spent by other jurisdictions, such as the school board and municipalities.
More than $13 million of the county budget falls under this category.
For example, the fee in lieu of taxes fund includes $8.3 million in revenue from industrial development, of which only $2.8 million supports county operations while $5.5 million supports the public schools.
Therefore, when accounting for double-counts and pass-throughs, the “real” County budget is closer to $100 million instead of $120 million.
Six of these funds constitute the majority of non-General Fund activities.
The largest is fund 410 Sales Tax Referendum, which includes projects approved by the voters in 2004. $26.9 million is budgeted in 2012-2013, including $10 million in prior-year carryover, along with $4.8 million “passing through” to the City of Aiken and $3.3 million to the City of North Augusta for their projects.
Though sales tax revenues tend to be constant year-to-year, annual expenditures vary based on individual project schedules.
The next largest is Fund 506 Fee In Lieu Of Taxes, which includes $8.3 million in revenue from industrial development. As noted above, this revenue is split between the county and the school board.
Fund 404 Public Service Authority is next at $6.6 million. The PSA operates and maintains the Horse Creek Waste Water Treatment Facility, with revenue primarily from user fees.
Five years ago, the PSA budget was nearly $7 million, but overall revenue has dropped due to declining waste water volumes from the local textile industry.
Fund 405 Solid Waste is $5.5 million and covers operations of the county drop-off centers and landfills, along with operational costs for the multicounty Three Rivers Landfill. Revenue is generated from property taxes and landfill fees.
Fund 407 Road Maintenance is $4 million, with eponymous scope, and revenue is a combination of road maintenance fees (66 percent) and property taxes (34 percent).
Fund 507 Debt Service supports a variety of bonds issued since the 1990s, totals $3 million in 2012/13, and is funded through property taxes.
Annual debt service varies as bonds roll on and off, and existing bonds are refinanced. In comparison, this fund totaled $3.8 million in 2011-2012.
Combined, these six funds account for over 80 percent of non-General Fund revenues and appropriations. The other 21 funds account for less than 20 percent.
These funds are critical components of the County budget.
Though not as flexible as the General Fund accounts, these 27 funds deserve the same attention and scrutiny given to the General Fund.
Tax dollars are tax dollars, and all county expenditures must be managed wisely, frugally, and transparently. County Council should continue to budget these funds as efficiently and economically as possible.
Gary Bunker is a former member of the Aiken County Council.