Official: Salaries make up bulk of county’s general fund budget

By Jason Evans

Staff Reporter

PICKENS — Salaries and other personal services make up more than two-thirds of Pickens County’s budget each year, according to the county finance director.

County council held a budget discussion last month, early in the budget process.

“I wanted to have this meeting because of what we talked about in our council goals,” county council chairman Roy Costner said.

During a planning session in November of last year, council discussed looking at the budget in a different way than in prior years.

“We were talking about really taking a hard look at our budget in the sense of what percentage of our overall numbers are going toward what departments,” Costner said. “What do we have to pay for and what are choosing to pay for?”

Finance director Ralph Guarino presented council with the top 10 type of expenditures in the general fund budget.

“This is not the fire departments. This is not the library,” Guarino said. “I kind of want to focus on the general fund, because the general fund is quasi-unrestricted.”

Salaries are the top expenditure in the general fund.

“That’s at $20 million,” Guarino said. “When you look at the first five or six categories, it’s salaries, it’s health insurance, it’s retirement, it’s overtime … it’s FICA.”

About 68 percent of the general fund budget goes toward personnel services, he said.

“That’s salaries and everything else,” Guarino said. “So really to move the needle on anything one way or the other, whether you want to cut or increase, you’re looking at doing something with the employees.”

Guarino said he believed 89 percent of the school district’s budget went to personnel services.

Councilman Trey Whitehurst said adding county employees “has always been a big discussion.”

“Because it’s got a long-term impact,” he said.

Acting county administrator Ken Roper said it’s a discussion he and Guarino have “with everyone who comes in” for budget discussions.

“This department’s asking to add a position, and sometimes they need it,” he said. “But not always.”

The Planning Department has asked every year for more positions “and we’ve told them no,” Roper said.

But building activity is ramping up, he said.

“Now we’re in a comprehensive planning year, which we’re required by law to do, and those guys are overworked, they’re stressed because they haven’t added positions as the economy’s grown,” Roper said.

Outsourcing the comprehensive planning process allows the county to spend money one time “rather than spend it every year on a salary,” he said.

“Decisions like that have to be made,” Roper said.

Officials are carefully looking at how to eliminate scheduled overtime, he said.

Overtime makes up almost $1.7 million of the general fund budget.

Whitehurst asked how much overtime comes from the sheriff’s office.

$430,000 is budgeted, Guarino said.

“They’ve got 14 new employees — I shouldn’t see any overtime,” Whitehurst said.

Scheduling at the sheriff’s office has overtime built in, Councilman Chris Bowers said.

Guarino agreed, adding that EMS is the same way. $1.2 million of the overtime is budgeted for EMS, he said.

“The shift that they work … one week you work 64 hours, the next week you work 56 hours, the next week you work 48 hours,” Bowers said. “Every week you’re over 40 hours.”

Labor laws give leeway to fire departments and the sheriff’s office, but not to EMS, he said.

“EMS is young compared to every other form of public safety out here,” Bowers said. “1970s is when the EMS got its start, truthfully. So the labor laws aren’t there, because it is very much an infant in the grand scheme.

Costner asked why the scheduling couldn’t change.

“This is a nationwide thing,” Bowers said. “This is not a Pickens County thing.”

Guarino agreed.

“If you want to go to people working less and not having as much overtime, you’ve got to hire more people,” he said. “The big cost on that is health insurance.”

Employees get taxed at a higher rate on overtime, so overtime may be doing them a disservice, Whitehurst said.

“There’s got to be a better solution than $1.7 million,” he said.

Roper agreed.

“We’ve got to look at some options,” he said. “This is an area where we can make some difference.”

County staff can make certain changes themselves without going to council, Guarino said.

“If we want to change the schedule of EMS, we feel that’s a discussion that council needs to make, because you may get a lot of backlash from employees,” he said. “You need to know if we can make a change.”

Health insurance, retirement, overtime, capital, FICA, contracts, waste hauling, fuel and oil and electricity also appear in the top 10 types of general fund expenditures.

“Giving us a breakdown this way gives us the questions we need to ask,” Costner said. “It gives us better ways of giving you guys direction so we can come up with a better number — and it gives us a better way to communicate with our constituents, too.”