Aiken County Council spent Friday listening to department heads discuss their successes, their challenges and their needs.

County Council's day-long annual budget retreat was a mix of optimism and concern as a variety of topics were discussed during presentations from each department.

With the new government center almost ready for move-in, much of the discussion focused on fresh beginnings, exciting changes and innovative ways to improve the County.

Salary concerns

Several department heads are having trouble filling vacant positions and many believe it's due to lower pay in comparison to other counties around the state.

For example, County Assessor Rick Jantzen said he currently has five appraisal staff vacancies. To demonstrate how difficult it's been to fill a vacancy, he cited an appraiser position that had been posted as vacant since May 2, 2012. Out of 20 applications received, only five were from licensed and certified appraisers. He said in his research of appraiser and assessor wages across the state, the average in South Carolina is $44,010 and $48,100 in the CSRA. Aiken County is averaging $35,516 annually.

Emergency Services Director Tommy Thompson pointed out Aiken County EMS salaries are some of the lowest in comparison to other counties, though he said on Friday his department has five new hires about to undergo their physicals.

Several department heads, including Jantzen and Thompson, asked Council for an increase in compensation to be more competitive with other counties.

Parks and Recreation plans for the future

Parks, Recreation and Tourism Director Mark van der Linden is aware of the funding challenges that his department faces, but is ready to tackle the issue.

He cited a recent Clemson University study that pointed out some of those challenges in Aiken County PRT including poor marketing and brand identity, substandard facilities and surrounding municipalities having much stronger parks and programs.

In 2013, Aiken County Parks, Recreation and Tourism was designated $940,782. In contrast, the cities of North Augusta and Aiken budgeted several million dollars for their parks and recreation departments that same fiscal year.

Van der Linden said the best way to provide for residents is to find alternate funding opportunities, as well as to come up with special projects, events and programs.

Capital Project Sales Tax funds are also being used to make some big changes at various parks like Roy Warner Park in Wagener and Langley Pond Park.

Van der Linden said some of the proposed improvements at Langley Pond include the installation of a splash pad, the construction of a maintenance building and building a finish tower with spectator seating. He added his department is hoping to build a lodge at Langley Pond in the next seven to 10 years.

“Our goal is really to improve the quality of life in Aiken County,” van der Linden said. “Given what we have, we will strive to always provide quality programs and services.”

Public Works – better customer service

Another highly anticipated building project is almost ready for occupation and that's the new Aiken County Animal Shelter.

Public Works Director John Dyches said euthanization rates are dropping, and he contributed much of that success to the efforts of the Friends of the Animal Shelter. He said the new, larger facility should help continue that trend.

Dyches said another way to help out the shelter and residents is to cut the redemption fee to $70, which is the normal adoption price for a dog. That fee covers sterilization, inoculations and a microchip.

He said a dog that's picked up by animal control that spends five days in the shelter can cost up to $105 after the impoundment fee, microchipping and rabies vaccination costs are tacked on. The high cost to pick up a pet could lead the owner to surrender the animal instead, and that's something he wants to prevent.

Council reaction

Council members were asked at the end of the retreat to prioritize a list of budget item proposals. Topping that list was addressing aging equipment for EMS and a compensation analysis ranked second.

Council members who were attendance commended staff for their hard work and presentations.

“I think it's great to see, hear and put a face to each department,” said Council Chairman Ronnie Young. “It's good for us to hear what happens day-to-day.”

Amy Banton is the County reporter for the Aiken Standard.