Small towns get creative during slow economy
In this turbulent economy, many cities and towns across the country find themselves vulnerable to financial woes.
Budgets have tightened for municipalities both statewide and nationally, and several municipal bankruptcies have been filed since 2010, including Detroit earlier this year. When a city that was once known as one of the most industrious in the country goes bankrupt, one may wonder how small towns are still surviving.
Several leaders of the smaller incorporated towns in Aiken County have said it's a struggle, but they're continuing to move forward despite the many challenges they face.
The Aiken Standard spoke to officials of three municipalities that vary in size and population, and each have their own unique situations.
The Town of Windsor
Mayor Frank Mizell said it only takes about $13,000 a year to run the small town of Windsor.
The town doesn't need too much money to operate. About 200 residents live in Windsor proper, and they live off their own wells and septic tanks they have to maintain on their own. The town only has one paid employee, which is the town clerk.
Each municipality receives a franchise fee from SCE&G, which is a charge paid by customers living within the town or city limits. Windsor uses those funds to keep the town clean and to maintain the street lights, Mizell said.
The town relies heavily on the Capital Projects Sales Tax funds to complete projects it wouldn't have been able to without that funding. At this time, it's using that money to complete a park in Windsor.
The town also has a fairly large fire department that collects an annual fee from anyone in its service district, Mizell added.
Because Windsor does not have its own police station, the Aiken County Sheriff's Office handles the town's calls.
Windsor also collects business license fees from the few shops and stores located in town.
Mizell, a native of Windsor, said his town was considered a “thriving metropolis” decades ago as it had several businesses, including sewing rooms and a bank. The town had potential to flourish.
But when the Savannah River Site came to the area in 1950, many residents declined to sell their land for housing units to be constructed for the influx of employees and growth stalled. Later, Windsor lost its public school to a fire in 1980. The town hall also burned down, and Windsor is currently working on obtaining federal grants to build a new one.
Mizell said his hope is for Windsor to grow through annexation, and the town is working toward having its own water system.
The Town of Wagener
Over the years, Wagener has cut down its personnel costs, but Mayor Mike Miller doesn't mind rolling up his sleeves and mowing the lawn of a town park.
“Everybody's got to chip in. That's pretty much the typical small-town attitude,” Miller said. “It's not easy at all, but it's gratifying.”
Wagener, which spends about $25,000 a month to operate, has a population of about 850 within the 1.5-square-mile town, Miller said.
“We're a big family in a small house,” Miller quipped.
The town has its own public works – though Miller said the income from water and sewer has been stretched – and police station.
Several small businesses and chain stores such as Dollar General and Piggly Wiggly are in Wagener. Miller said they're working to bring in more businesses to expand the tax base.
Miller said they do receive Community Development Block Grant funds and other grants that help the town accomplish its goals. The Capital Project Sales Tax also offers major assistance to Wagener, which recently used the funds to purchase a backhoe to help fix water main breaks and buy several new police cars.
Sometimes, the town finds other ways to make ends meet, Miller said. He said they cleaned out an old shed behind the fire station and found lots of scrap metal that added up to about $30,000. The money, which was intended to be given to the police department, became more of a coincidental gain because it was used to fix an emergency water issue. When asked what they would have done without that extra cash from the scrap metal, Miller said, “prayed.”
Miller said they're certainly not floating in cash and every single dollar is earmarked for something, but Wagener's not in trouble. He said careful spending habits and planning are key to surviving this economy.
The City of New Ellenton
New Ellenton's budget has been shrinking for the past five years, according to Mayor Vernon Dunbar. One reason is because the state isn't offering as much aid to smaller municipalities as it did before, Dunbar said.
But the city has learned to adjust. This year, it's working with an approximately $1.3 million budget.
Dunbar said they have about 2,500 residents living in the city who pay for sanitation and sewer fees.
New Ellenton has its own police force, which brings in some fines and fees, but only 23 percent is kept by the City, and Dunbar said that doesn't really help pay the bills.
The tax base in New Ellenton is a bit stronger than surrounding small municipalities as it has several businesses lining the City's main stretch. Dunbar said they hope to attract more businesses to New Ellenton in the future.
The City is currently building a new convention center and revamping its City Hall through Capital Project Sales Tax money. City officials hope this improves the aesthetics of the town and inspires more people to do business in New Ellenton.
Dunbar said the County does a lot for New Ellenton, such as handle all building permits.
Grants are also helpful, Dunbar added, citing the $350,000 that was awarded to New Ellenton by the South Carolina Rural Infrastructure Authority earlier this year. Those funds will be used to make repairs and upgrades to the city's sewer plant.
Dunbar said that running a small town or city means being more creative.
“You have less resources, but the same needs are there,” Dunbar said. “There's less people doing more.”
Amy Banton is the County beat reporter and has been with the Aiken Standard since May 2010. She is a native of Rustburg, Va., and a graduate of Randolph Macon Woman's College.