FY ‘21 budget proposal has no tax, fee hike

By Jason Evans

Staff Reporter

PICKENS — Pickens County’s proposed fiscal year 2021 budget is balanced and contains no tax increase.

Meeting virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, county council members held a budget work session Monday, April 20. That meeting can be viewed on the “Pickens County SC” YouTube channel.

Maintaining a conservative budget was one of the goals county council outlined for staff last year, finance director Ralph Guarino said.

“That’s why we’re here tonight,” he said.

The proposed budget contains “no tax increase for any millage that we have out there,” Guarino said.

“That’s for the fire districts, that’s for county operations, that’s for the library,” he added. “There’s no tax increase or fee increases in this budget. I just want to emphasize that. Not everybody’s going to be happy with the budget, but in the end, we have a balanced budget with no tax increase.

Zero-based budgeting was a staff objective, Guarino said.

“We’ve always done zero-based budgeting,” he said. “Staff starts out in essence with a blank sheet of paper. We go through, literally, line item by line item. We make departments break down what’s in the budget within each account line item, and we review those things.”

Due to the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, council members requested that staff keep the budget static or flat as much as possible.

“I think you’ll find during the budget, everything that’s in here is pretty much mandatory,” Guarino said. “There were a lot of requests out there by departments, outside agencies, elected officials, but unfortunately we can’t meet everybody’s expectations with the amount of revenue that we have.”

Each department had the opportunity to meet with acting county administrator Ken Roper during the month of February, Guarino said.

“I think he did a very good job of really listening to what departments’ needs are,” he said. “He also listened to a lot of wants, and he had to decipher between the needs and the wants. With the same amount or thereabouts that we’ve had, he wasn’t able to give everybody what they needed — and he definitely wasn’t able to give anybody what they wanted.”

Another budgeting objective was not implementing a tax increase “unless tied to an overwhelming need,” he said.

“When we looked at our needs, there’s a lot out there, but there was nothing in there that we felt was compelling enough to raise taxes,” Guarino said.

The proposed budget recognizes increases in operational expenses, including the C&D transfer station and bringing on the new detention center full-time, he said.

The total proposed FY21 budget for all funds, not just the general fund, is $72 million, compared to a $70.5 million budget for all funds for FY20, Guarino said.

An increase in capital expenses of nearly $2 million dollars is mostly due to a project at the county airport — and an FAA grant will pay around 95 percent of those costs, he said.

“Our overall budget increased 1.8 percent,” he said. “If you take out the airport project out of capital and you compare it to the current year budget that we’re in, it’s a decrease of 2.6 percent. Overall, we’ve gone very conservative and we actually would have a decrease if we didn’t have that one project out there, but we didn’t want to give up the opportunity to possibly get $3.1 million from the FAA. We’re basically getting 95 cents on the dollar, which is hard to pass up.”

More than half — 57 percent — of the total proposed budget is personnel services, Guarino said.

“That’s salaries, that’s overtime, that’s health insurance, that’s workers comp,” he said. “57 percent of our budget goes to personnel.”

Personnel services comprise about 72 percent of the general fund budget, Guarino said.

Public safety comprises 40 percent of the overall budget, he said. That includes the sheriff’s office, the detention center, fire departments, EMS and the coroner’s office

“About $28 million of our budget goes to public safety,” Guarino said.

Council and staff had discussed “having some form of consistency with our fire fees throughout the 13 fire districts,” he said.

But that issue has been pushed aside, Guarino said.

“We started working on that,” he said. “Once we got thinking about it, with everything going on with the COVID, we kind of backtracked on that and said we really need to put this on the back burner, and talk about it probably in the fall time, separate from the budget.”

Second reading and a public hearing on the budget was slated for Monday.