Virus’ impact present in new Easley budget

By Jason Evans

Staff Reporter

EASLEY — The city of Easley’s Fiscal Year 2020-21 budget reflects the uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to city administrator Stephen Steese.

Easley City Council passed second reading of the balanced budget during a called meeting June 29.

“The budget presented to Council reflects a flat year of revenue for the City,” Steese wrote in the budget’s executive summary. “The conservative estimates in the budget reflects the unknown impact that the Covid-19 virus will have on the economy in 2020 and how that will impact the FY ‘20-21 Budget.”

As it was drafted, the budget took “an interesting path,” Steese wrote.

“Prior to meeting at our 2020 Budget Retreat, we were looking at a positive FY ‘19-20 that reflected the continued growth in the City,” he wrote. “The first draft of the budget reflected this continued growth with additional revenues, several new positions and additional equipment. The second and currently presented draft of the budget reflects some anticipated impacts from the COVID-19 on the national, state and our local economy.”

The general fund budget for FY ‘20-21 totals $15,162,452, Steese said during the meeting.

“This is a 1.6 percent increase over the previous year,” he said. “This budget does take into account the unknown that we may see over the next several months or year for the COVID-19 impact on the budget.”

The budget as presented to council contained no new positions, Steese said.

“They were all removed as we looked to cut to make sure the budget stayed relatively flat to be prepared for any downtown that may continue or may come again in the fall or winter if COVID picks back up and we see cases cause closures or affect revenue,” he said.

Most of the 1.6 percent increase is coming in the public works and streets and sanitation departments, “where we’re proposing financing a trash truck and a dump truck,” Steese said.

Overall, the budget is “pretty neutral for the year,” he said.

Special revenue funds are expected to remain pretty level “except for hospitality and accommodations tax,” Steese said.

“Those are the two that are most affected by the COVID-19 impact, which is the lack of tourism and people going out to eat,” he said. “Currently, restaurants are at 50 percent (capacity) and are supposed to have guidelines in place to address that.”

The budget reflects around a 12 percent decrease in the city’s hospitality tax income for next year, Steese said.

During the recession from around 2007-10, the city only saw a 3 percent decrease overall in hospitality tax during that time period “before that number began to kick back up,” he said.

“So, this is being very conservative based on that as a guideline,” Steese said.

The budget reflects a drop in local accommodations taxes by 25 to 30 percent, he said.

Officials will keep an eye on Clemson University’s fall athletic plans, Steese said.

“How that goes will determine what our accommodations tax numbers look like moving forward into the next fiscal year,” he said.

The budget’s enterprise fund reflects a $2 increase in stormwater fees that will go to pay for a stormwater bond that will fund a number of stormwater repairs throughout the city.

Council voted to restore two new positions that were in the original budget.

Councilman Jim Robinson made a motion to amend the budget to include a training officer for the police department.

“I think this is something that we really need, particularly with the sensitive times in which we’re living,” Councilwoman Pat Webb said. “I think if we can make our police force even more professional, I’ll be pleased with that.”

Councilman Kent Dykes said his only concern was “that we bring the right person in, to train correctly, with the latest police initiatives that can help us with our civil unrest.”

Councilwoman Nancy Breazeale chairs the police committee. She said Easley Police Chief Tim Tollison “has done a wonderful job, and we want that to continue.”

“He has good trust in his officers, knowing that they will do well,” she said. “He seems to know who they are and what they can do.”

Steese presented options on how the position would be funded.

“I don’t like the idea of using fund balance to pay for reoccurring cost, which would be what positions are,” Steese said. “I believe fund balance should be used more to handle one-time expenses.”

$125,000 in fund balance could be used to pay for SCBA equipment for the fire department “that will then free up funds” that could pay for positions, he said.

“We’re not finding any new money,” Steese said. “We’re using fund balance.”

Robinson said the position “is certainly a timely request and a needed request.”

“My concern was about the effect on the budget, and Mr. Steese has addressed that for us,” he said.

The amendment passed unanimously.

Councilman Terry Moore made a motion to amend the budget to add a training officer to the fire department.

“We want to give them the best training we can possibly give them,” he said.

Robinson said the request was a worthy one, but “I think a distinction could be made between the demands that are being placed on law enforcement today versus the demands being placed on the fire department today.”

Additional training is needed to help firefighters keep up with the city’s growth, officials said.

Webb said the police and fire departments “work hand in hand.”

“If Stephen said we can find enough money to do it, I’m going to say ‘Let’s do it,’” she said.

That amendment passed, with Robinson opposing.

Council unanimously passed the budget.

No one signed up to provide comment on the budget during the public hearing before the vote, Steese said.