Letters to the Editor 10-07-15

Saitta talks SDPC audit

Dear Editor

The school district’s 2015 financial audit is complete, and the district’s budget ended the year in surplus of $3.8 million. Unfortunately, $3.3 million of that surplus was spent on building maintenance and equipment. Staggering building costs continue to eat up the budget.

Savings increased $550,000 in 2014-15. It is safe to say the district has built about $4 to $5 million in savings. This is a far contrast to 2010 when the district was facing a $2.75 million deficit and had negative savings, having to borrow money to meet payroll late that year.

Total spending this past fiscal year was $193.4 million — that’s $11,690 per student.

The budget is still generating surpluses and building savings. This is due to five primary reasons:

1. Unlike surrounding school districts and in the face of opposition, our school board bit the bullet and made permanent reductions in spending in 2010 and 2011. As a result the budget deficit that year and for years to come was wiped out.

2. As the economy rebounded and new revenue started to flow-in in 2012, 2013 and 2014, the board limited annual spending growth, and surpluses and savings began to build.

3. A by-product of this fiscal austerity was it altered the culture by making employees more cost conscious. Looking at the details of the audit, actual spending for hundreds of items were below budgeted expenditures. The district leadership and employees have done a good job of keeping actual spending under budgeted spending the past few years.

4. The economy is now in the seventh year of its upswing, so revenue has been growing steadily for years now. The TIF lawsuit help boost revenue too.

5. While I didn’t agree with this, about 55 teaching positions have been eliminated the last two years, and that has created savings, too.

Combing through the 102-page audit, total debt of the district is $303.1 million. That is down from the peak of $382.5 million in 2007.

Under the stress of rising retirement costs, the contribution the district pays into the state pension has risen from 8.05 percent in 2007 to 10.75 percent in 2015. The pension system is woefully under-funded, so taxpayers as well as employees are having to pay more. The district’s portion of the liability is $142.7 million.

By the way, 31 percent of the state’s pension assets are now invested in the stock market. It has another 31 percent invested in even riskier assets like hedge funds, private equity and debt, as well as commodities. It is assuming a 7.5 percent annual return on its investments.

The financial condition of the district has improved significantly the past few years due to economic growth and improved budget management. Longer-term, the bond debt is still staggering, more than $300 million. The pension liability is probably $250 million given market returns are likely to fall short of 7.5 percent. The audit doesn’t mention the district’s long-term medical liability is, but it is undoubtedly high (probably north of $200 million) and going higher because ObamaCare continues to ratchet up medical costs.

Many state and local governments look the same way, better in the short-run, but buried in debt and having made too many promises they’ll never be able to afford in the long-run.

Alex Saitta

School board trustee


A challenge on fire fee

Dear Editor,

I write this letter to the editor in hopes it will reach each person in Pickens County owning open land. Pickens County Council has applied a “fire fee” on all open land in the county. This will be found on your tax bill for 2015. This fee is applied to all plots; for example, if you own three plots of land 5.1 acres or more, you will pay $80 on each piece, coming to a $240 tax increase. Council passed this scale: 0.1 to 5 acres $20, 5.1 to 20 acres $80, 20.1 to 100 acres $160, 100.1 to 1,000 acres $240, and greater than 1,000 acres $320. So if you own one, acre you pay $20. If you own 1000.1 acres you pay $0.32 per acre, or $320. How can this scale be justified? The population of Pickens County is about 120,000 people in the 2014 census. If 50,000 people pay a one-acre fire fee of $20, this will bring in about $1 million, and of course this is only a small amount to what real income will be from this fee. County fire fees do not go to city fire departments. We now have 13 county fire stations, but more will be added in the future.

I ask you to contact county council members. The six members are listed below, along with their districts and phone numbers.

Ensley Feemster — District 1, Clemson, (864) 654-3862.

Trey Whitehurst — District 2, Six Mile, (864) 639-6035.

Randy Crenshaw — District 3, Pickens, (864) 868-2879.

Neil Smith — District 4, Liberty, (864) 878-6026.

Jennifer Willis — District 5, Easley, (864) 859-6096.

Tom Ponder — District 6, Dacusville, (864) 430-1386.

I challenge you to let your council know your view on the decision council has made. I also ask that each open land owner come to the county council meeting scheduled for Oct. 19 at 6:30 pm. Rules for speaking are that you must sign up before the meeting. Call (864) 898-5856. The location is the Pickens County administration building at 222 McDaniel Ave in Pickens.

Ruth Clark



More on fire fee proposed by county

Dear Editor,

An in-depth news reporting of Pickens County Council’s decision to apply a fire fee charge on all unoccupied agricultural property is needed.

The fire fee charges now being added to the existing property owners tax bill for 2015 are:

1. 0 to 5 acres, an additional $20 is applied

2. 5.1 to 20 acres, an additional $80 is applied

3. 20.1 to 100 acres, an additional $120 is applied

4. 100.1 to 1,000 acres, an additional $240 is applied

5. 1,000+, an additional $320 is applied

As a retired senior citizen living on a fixed income, the county council has increased my property tax burden by more than 900 percent.

My property is in various small separate tracts, and as such, I am forced to pay this fire fee on each parcel of land.

My property already has rural fire coverage provided by the S.C. Forestry Department, which is paid through my S.C. state tax. And Pickens County has a tax millage applied to cover fire protection, which I already pay. So why is additional money required of me to pay?

One of my small tracts of mountain forest is land-locked, with no road access. When I asked the rural fire chief how a fire on this would be handled, he said the S.C. Forestry Department would be called in to work it. So why am I charged a fee for non-existent help?

When I spoke with council chairwoman Jennifer Willis concerning these fire fees, I asked what recourse I have as to appealing the extra cost. In a rather callous response, she said there is no recourse, and I quote, “You have to pay it.”

The next Pickens County Council meeting is October 19 at 6:30 p.m. in Pickens. But I’m concerned that many taxpayers will be unaware of the egregious fee and higher tax bills since the mail has not yet delivered these. The county council members must be made to explain and be held accountable to the voters and citizens of Pickens County for this attack on our pocketbooks.

I and other affected agricultural land owners in Pickens County need to know how six individuals can arbitrarily impose the taking of money without clear discussions, notifications or citizens voting approval.

Please, I implore you to research these issues and be a part of the upcoming meeting on Oct. 19 at 6: 30 p.m. at 222 McDaniel Ave. in Pickens.

Marie Vaughan