Aiken County officials are disappointed and frustrated with the South Carolina Senate's decision to kill an effort to make aid to local government a high budget priority.
The Senate voted on Wednesday, 29-13, in favor of making the expansion of an at-risk 4-year-old kindergarten a higher priority, a vote that opponents said would help more poor children in school succeed, according to The Associated Press.
Judiciary Chairman Larry Martin of Pickens proposed the item and said he wanted to restore $16 million to local governments by taking the item off a surplus funding list, and instead, putting money for expanding full-day 4K on it. Instead, senators chose to keep all $24 million to educate 4-year-olds in the regular budget.
County Administrator Clay Killian said the decision clearly violates the General Assembly's own law.
“I'm not sure what that $16 million would mean for us, because it's parceled out to other counties,” Killian said. “But we provide office space for DHEC (Department of Environmental Health and Control) and a bunch of other things they don't reimburse us for. All they're doing is forcing local governments into a pressure situation to possibly raise rates, like local property taxes.”
County Councilman Scott Singer, who has a high interest in the situation, said the state government has again balanced its budget on the backs of local governments.
“It's unfortunate because a lot of politicians in Columbia come back to constituents here and talk about how proud they are that they didn't raise taxes,” Singer said. “But they reduce the amount of money for local governments, and force local governments to increase fees and come up with other ways of making up for that shortfall.”
Singer said there is no such thing as a “free lunch,” and if residents want the best emergency services and the best public works, it has to be paid for.
“Unfortunately, the Legislature time and time again has suspended their own rules for political expediency,” Singer said.
If the state collects more revenue than currently projected, the surplus list gets funded, according to The Associated Press. Senators believe both items will eventually be funded.
With Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt asking for higher employee salaries, and the County paying out of pocket on several million dollars due to Winter Storm Pax emergency and recovery operations, Killian said it has become an almost “perfect storm.”
“I hate to use that phrase, but no pun intended, it just puts too many pressures on our budget,” Killian said. “There's a tipping point. I don't know if we are there, but we are close.”
Maayan Schechter is the local government reporter with Aiken Standard.