Virus may have halted road fix

By Jason Evans

Staff Reporter

PICKENS — The uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus strain is causing Pickens County Council and staff to rethink preparations for the upcoming budget.

The outbreak’s timing “is unfortunate,” acting administrator Ken Roper said. “It’s budget time.”

Council members discussed what the coronavirus means for the budget during a special meeting March 16.

County staff are exploring the county’s legal requirements for the budget, Roper said.

“Could we give you a bare-bones budget, could you pass it in a reasonably short amount of time, with no tax increases and those sorts of things, so the public doesn’t have to have anxiety about it?” he said. “We don’t need to add additional anxiety to what the public’s already feeling.”

The county’s response to the virus will create unforeseen expenses, Councilman Ensley Feemster said.

“We really do need to keep the budget tight,” he said.

Councilman Chairman Roy Costner said the county budget is “a plan of where we are going, based on the vision of all the people that we represent.”

“So if we have an uncertainty in which direction it could possibly go, I’d like us to consider giving instructions to staff as they prepare the budget for us, that they keep it absolutely flat, that we take everything else off the table,” he said. “In other words, let’s not consider anything about moving any money out of the general funds or raising any fees or doing anything else — that we keep it flat, but we also look toward areas to save.”

One issue that has occupied council’s discussions recently is addressing the county’s roads, which are currently on a paving cycle of more than 75 years. The county’s $20 road user fee alone does not generate enough funds to pave the roads. Council and county staff have been discussing available options for obtaining funding to put the county on a more timely road paving schedule.

“All these things that we had been previously trying to figure out what is our plan on right now — specifically with the road user fee and where we’re going on that — it’s my opinion that we don’t look at doing anything else … until this crisis has come under control,” Costner said. “Then we can start looking at farther down and a future and a vision.”

That means not addressing department heads’ “asks and wants,” Councilman Trey Whitehurst said.

“We don’t have time to look at the asks and wants,” Costner said.

The upcoming budget already has a starting point, Whitehurst said.

“We start where we were last year and we work backwards,” he said.

Costner agreed.

“And that should be pretty quick, to come up with those numbers,” he said.

Looking at the budget during a crisis will be revealing, Councilman Chris Bowers said.

“I believe you’re going to find that you’ve got some inefficiencies, because you’re being forced to operate the county in a way it’s never been operated before in this current situation,” he said. “I believe you’re going to find some areas where you may have some savings you never knew you had because we’ve always done it this way, but we’re being forced to do it a different way now.

“By the same token, you may see where we have some failures, where we may need something a little extra, because we’ve always done it one way that wasn’t the right or maybe it was not the best way,” Bowers continued.

Councilman Carl Hudson addressed the road paving issue.

Hudson said, speaking only for himself, that he wouldn’t look at “raising any taxes or fees or anything this year.”

“I think by the time this plays itself out, it’s going to be too late in the budget year to even look at it anyway,” he said. “I have some real concerns about hurting business with increasing the one-cent sales tax anyway.”

The road issue still needs to be addressed, Hudson said.

Instead of adding a new tax or increasing a fee, the county’s growing revenues should be used toward that issue, he said.

“Maybe the next year, the next council looks at taking some of that money, that growth and using that on the roads instead of adding new tax,” Hudson said. “I think I agree 100 percent with you guys. I think this is a bad time. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Bowers agreed.

“Think 2008,” he said. “It could be as bad. It could be worse. We don’t know.”

Councilman Wes Hendricks asked if county staff could prepare a plan of starting points for council “if we have to start making some cuts.”

Yes, Roper said. Last year, council gave Roper specific 2020 goals.

“We’re lucky in one regard,” he said. “Your first goal was to maintain a conservative budget.”

To that end, staff has been looking at health care savings, efficiencies and standard purchasing to “try and save money,” Roper said.

“Not that we are all the way home on that, I just want you to know that y’all, in November of last year, gave a lot of this instruction and we took it seriously,” he said. “We heard you.”

Staff intends to bring council a budget at its first meeting in April “that meets those goals,” Roper said.

“What you’re giving me now is more specific, and we will certainly look at those things … where we might could look to trim,” he said.