County Council discusses amendments to proposed 2019-2020 budget during work session 1

Aiken County Council Chairman Gary Bunker, left background, talks about the fiscal year 2019-2020 budget during a County Council work session Tuesday in Council Chambers at the Aiken County Government Center in Aiken. Councilman Chuck Smith, background left, listens.

Aiken County Council discussed possible amendments, including one that would prevent a property tax increase, during a work session Tuesday on the county’s proposed 2019-2020 fiscal year budget.

It was the fifth budget work session for the panel, and it was held in Council Chambers at the Aiken County Government Center.

Most of the talk was about the General Fund, which is used for the county’s day-to-day operating expenses.

The third and final reading of an ordinance to establish the financial plan for the new fiscal year, which will begin July 1, is scheduled for County Council’s meeting at 7 p.m. on June 18 at the Government Center.

That is when any revisions to the proposed 2019-2020 budget will be made.

In that financial plan’s draft, prepared by County Administrator Clay Killian and his staff, the millage rate used to calculate property taxes would rise from 68.5 mills to 71.6 mills.

But Council Chairman Gary Bunker discussed an amendment that he had crafted that would eliminate the millage rate increase.

In addition, the revision would provide pay raises of at least 1%, across-the-board, for county employees.

Emergency Medical Services and Aiken County detention center employees, along with dispatchers, would receive raises of 4%.

The county is “having a very hard time” filling vacancies for those types of jobs and keeping people in them, Bunker said.

“I don’t believe this will totally solve the problems, but I want to make a start toward fixing them,” he added.

Bunker’s amendment also would reduce the dependence on non-recurring one-time revenues, he said, from $4.4 million during the current 2018-2019 fiscal year to $1.3 million in 2019-2020.

By law, the county is required to have a balanced budget.

Bunker explained during the meeting and in an interview afterward how the amendment he prepared could accomplish that without a property tax increase, which would have generated an estimated $2,036,700.

“There were a variety of strategies that I employed,” he said. “There wasn’t a magic bullet. There wasn’t one single thing that would fix the problem.”

During the previous four budget work sessions, County Council reviewed, line-by-line, the General Fund’s revenues and expenditures. The panel also looked at other funds that are part of the budget.

Using all that information, Bunker crunched the numbers to create his amendment.

He said he found that quite a few of the items in the proposed 2019-2020 budget could “be reclassified” so they could be paid for with Capital Project Sales Tax funds.

There also were items that could be paid for using money from a projected surplus for the 2018-2019 fiscal year.

“The big ones were Finance, Information Technology, Emergency Medical Services and Code Enforcement items,” Bunker said.

The recent reorganization at the administrative level of county government will reduce expenditures by approximately $105,000 in regard to salaries and benefits, Killian told the Aiken Standard on Monday.

Another source of savings on expenditures involves health insurance.

“There is a reduction forecasted for health insurance costs because we have gone to partial self-funding,” Bunker said.

For that reason, he explained, he included “a small amount” from the projected health insurance savings in his budget amendment.

Bunker also found revenue streams that could be tapped into from the Carrol H. Warner Savannah Research Campus and fee-in-lieu-of-property-taxes agreements.

“I took a conservative approach,” he said. “We won’t be taking more than they’re bringing in.”

Killian and his staff’s proposed 2019-2020 budget sets both the revenue and expenditures for the General Fund at $72,048,277.

Bunker said his amendment would reduce those figures by $410,791 apiece.

The proposed total budget, including all funds, is $168,698,242 for both revenues and expenditures.

County Council Vice Chairman Andrew Siders previously had asked Killian to prepare some 2019-2020 budget options that would not require a property tax increase.

Killian presented three alternatives to the panel and said he wouldn’t endorse any of them.

None of them included raises for county employees.

When asked after the work session for his opinion of Bunker’s amendment, Killian said, “If there is an amendment (that would eliminate a property tax increase from the proposed 2019-2020 budget), it’s as prudent as it can be.”

Bunker also discussed another amendment that would establish a Mental Health Court that would allow offenders with a qualifying mental illness to plead guilty, receive treatment and successfully complete a program to avoid a jail sentence.

Aiken-Barnwell Mental Health Center would cover nearly all of the expenses for the Mental Health Court for at least the first two years of its existence with grant money.

In addition to Bunker, Council members Willar Hightower, Kathy Rawls and Camille Furgiuele suggested 2019-2020 budget amendments. They involved the following:

• Upgrades that would increase pay for employees in the Register of Mesne Conveyance Office.

• Upgrades that would increase pay for employees who work for Aiken County’s magistrates.

• The transfer of a position from the Delinquent Tax Collector’s department to the Auditor’s department.

• A reduction in the stormwater fee for county properties outside of municipalities from $16 to $10.

“A work session is a discussion, and what came out of came out of this discussion were basically six amendments,” Bunker said.

During County Council’s June 18 meeting, he continued: “They could be offered, not be offered, offered and amended, offered and passed or offered and not passed. I’m going to prepare for them to be offered (during County Council’s June 18 meeting), but nothing is set in stone.”

Other amendments also could be proposed during the panel’s meeting.

​Dede Biles is the Aiken County government, business and horse industry reporter for the Aiken Standard. Follow her on Twitter @DBethBiles.