When Aiken County Administrator Clay Killian stood in front of the council Tuesday and announced the first reading of the 2019-2020 budget it came as a surprise to those in attendance and especially to those who read the Aiken Standard story.
There is a proposed millage increase of three points for properties in Aiken County, which means if you live in the county your property taxes could be going up next year.
Last year, we were sold on a promise. County Chairman Gary Bunker told us that voting on Capital Project Sales Tax IV would most likely avoid property tax increases. That had to be a huge selling point to residents in order to vote in favor of it when it passed in November by such a wide margin.
Tuesday night, Bunker reiterated that fact when Killian included a property tax increase in the budget plan.
“We sold Capital Project Sales Tax IV last November to the voters … as either CPST IV or a millage hike,” he said. “With this in mind, I am disturbed we are considering a property tax hike so soon thereafter.”
Yes, we are disturbed too. This paper endorsed the CPST IV because we were sold too. It's something we don't normally do, but the paper did feel strongly enough to support it.
So why is this happening?
"We have utilized non-recurring money the last few years to balance our budget and to avoid tax increases," Killian said Wednesday. "The biggest one last year of course – the year we’re finishing up right now – was Winter Storm Pax and we finally got all that payment taken care of by the state. And we’re appreciative to Sen. Tom Young and all he did to get it done. But that money is not there (anymore). We have been completely reimbursed for Pax now. We liquidated the Other Post-Employment Benefits account (fund) several years ago, that was $600,000 two years ago that we had to make up somehow. And we just don’t have that pot of money this year available to us, so that’s the biggest cause."
Killian explained the fact gas prices are higher to keep county vehicles running, and the state pension has gone up and money has to be found for that.
"The sales tax has allowed us to avoid property tax increases for capital items in the budgets," Killian added. "We have purchased police cars and ambulances and heavy equipment and all of our fleet, buildings, building maintenance. All that kind of stuff has been taken care of by the capital project sales tax. But it cannot be used for operational money. When you have the pension system and then you have gas prices and electricity prices and all of the things that go into operating our facilities and our fleet and paying people and insurance, those things can’t be paid for with capital project sales tax, so the pressure on the operational side goes back to the use of non-recurring money and just the cost of doing business."
Killian's reasons seem to be valid, if these were mentioned before voters went to the polls and we can even go back just over a year ago – before May of last year.
On May 1, Aiken County voters went to the polls to vote for a school referendum for school improvements and that passed overwhelmingly. Bunker was concerned about that after it passed and was worried about the CPST IV vote.
Then the CPST vote passed.
And now this? This is terrible timing.
This latest proposed increase is not in the voters hands, it's with the council, which passed the first reading Tuesday 9-0. Just like that. There are two more readings to go through.
And just a fair warning, the City of Aiken hasn't breathed what their budget plans are, but can they be far behind?
When we voted for CPST IV it can be described as a handshake agreement between us and the county and we are in the process of that being broken.
One thing is for sure, if property owners get a property tax increase, do not expect voter support for a CPST V.