County officials: budget cuts too deep

More than 200 county officials from all areas of the state held a press conference in front of the governor’s office — to make a public plea to the legislature to ease off on proposed cuts to county government.    

Richland County Councilman Greg Pearce, president of the South Carolina Association of Counties, says, “Although we anticipated reductions this year, no one could have anticipated a 42 percent reduction, $122 million. You spread that out amongst the 46 counties, which that money is proportionally doled out, according to population.  Richland County, for example, get $8.1 million, whereas a small county, like Williamsburg, gets $646,000. But even on a proportion, that can be devastating.

To make matters worse, says Pearce, the legislature severely undercut the ability of all counties to generate new revenue. Pearce says, the legislature, when it created Act 388 for school funding, capped millage at a fixed amount. For Richland County, for instance, Pearce says, is only able to raise millage-not dollars-by three to four percent.

The consensus among the county leaders is that they will have to cut essential services even further.

Orangeburg Senator Brad Hutto says that kind of dilemma is the legislators’ responsibility to fix. He says, “We put them in a very awkward situation, if not a completely unfair situation. It’s something that the general assembly has imposed on them that we say ‘ they cannot take care of their own budgets except by certain mechanisms, yet we are going to cut them more than they have the ability to make up.’ I say that makes it our responsibility.”

State Representative Bakari Sellers, also of Orangeburg, says this is not a partisan issue, but “is about individuals getting care in emergency situations, this is about safety, this is about being overcrowded in our prisons, this is about just basic, everyday necessities.”

To add to the dilemma, there are county offices of state agencies to maintain with local tax monies, says Dianne Anderson, vice chair of Laurens County Council,  “We cannot cut them out as there are budget provisos that  we have to leave them in…the Department of Social Services, the Department of [Health and] Environmental Control.”

Anderson says Laurens now is not able to meet state mandates for manpower. For instance, she says, “According to guidelines for the Department of Corrections, our jail staff need to be at least 52.  Presently, we only have 42 employees. With the budget cut, we are unable to get up to what our staff should be where we don’t have incidences like we just had a couple of weeks ago, where an inmate seriously injured two of the guards.”

Representative Sellers says, beyond easing millage caps,  that we can “go down and knock on our Governor’s door and say there is stimulus money coming.”

For many, including Senator Hutto, an additional solution would be a new cigarette tax.  

John Pettigrew of Edgefield County Council agrees, “I think the simplest thing to do is to seriously look at this cigarette tax.  It’s the lowest in the nation, I think we are a dollar a pack less than the national average. Take that money … and fund healthcare with that. We can match that money with federal dollars and get three dollars for every dollar for our Medicaid program and that’ll free up money to take care of the county local government fund.”