By Stan Welch
A crowd of approximately sixty people jammed the West Pelzer Town Hall Thursday night, and witnessed something seldom, if ever, seen at the municipal level of government. Faced with a budget amendment that, if passed, would reduce the police department by one fourth, as well as reducing the sewer department by a part time employee, Mayor Peggy Paxton mounted what was essentially a filibuster.
At a special meeting called by a majority of the Council, without Paxton’s prior knowledge or approval, with the additional proviso that no public comments would be allowed, Paxton took matters into her own hands.
First she invoked the spirit of the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act, asking the Council to reverse their decision to preclude any public participation. Her motion, seconded by Councilman Blake Sanders, was defeated by the same three members who called the meeting.
Paxton then invoked her authority as mayor, and began to make her argument against both the proposed budget amendment, and the manner in which the matter was being handled.
The issues are complicated but clear cut. The existence of a full time police department is a major expense for the town, and one that has drained the town’s reserve fund.
Paxton conceded that point, but stressed that public safety is of great importance; a fact reinforced by the events of a raucous public hearing held last year about the matter of full time police protection.
Newly elected Councilman Donnie Jeanes conceded as much, saying that the reason he and fellow Councilmen Jimmy Jeanes and Johnnie Rogers didn’t allow for public comment is that, “We didn’t want to hear all that yelling again.”
Paxton then addressed the issue of the tax anticipation note, or TAN, that has exacerbated the concerns of the Council. The TAN allows the Council to borrow against anticipated tax revenues in order to ease cash flow problems caused by the uneven distribution of the tax revenues throughout the budget year.
The TAN is sold to a bank, much like a municipal bond, incurring the cost of legal services to draw up the note, as well as a modest interest rate charged by the bank. It is those costs that concern some members of Council, although the entire Council concedes that the town is in financial straits.
Paxton spent a good deal of time explaining the TAN to the audience, pointing out that “The town isn’t borrowing money from the local pawn shop or something. It is our money. We’re just getting an advance on it. And we knew when we did this for the last budget year that we would have to do it again this year. But I want everyone to understand that our budget is balanced. We aren’t spending more than we have, we just get the revenues in an awkward manner, and we have a cash flow problem.
She also took issue with the Councilman Jimmy Jeanes’ repeated comments that the town was “going under.” She read the monthly balance, after all expenses were paid, for each month of the last year. According to the bank statement, at no time was the town’s bank balance insufficient.
“We have never, once in my twelve years as mayor, NOT had money in the bank. This is not about the budget. We don’t always have a lot of money, but we make do and get by. This is about a cash flow problem, and whether or not that problem makes reducing services to the townspeople necessary.” She did concede, and town clerk Paula Payton confirmed, that sometimes bills are paid late, in order to make payroll on time.
She stressed, and the Council acknowledged, that even if the police officer and the part time water department employee were let go, that a TAN would have to be executed in the coming budget year, “So we’re going to do a TAN and reduce services at the same time? That just doesn’t make sense to me.”
Councilman Jimmy Jeanes, who had offered to listen to any alternatives from other members of the Council, claimed that no such alternatives had been forthcoming. Councilman Blake Sanders pointed out that the second reading of the budget amendment had originally been scheduled for the March Council meeting, but then the majority moved the meeting up three weeks.
Still, Sanders offered several possible cuts, including the part time employee that would save the approximate thirteen thousand dollars needed to retain the police officer through the current budget year. Sanders also asked Chief Clardy to explain the effect on the town’s law enforcement presence if the position was cut from the budget.
Clardy explained that of the 8700 man hours worked by the four member department, 2288 of those hours would be lost. In addition. He stated that the department accrues more than 15 hours in vacation time and various forms of leave. When those hours are added in, Clardy said that police coverage would be reduced to just under sixty per cent of what it is now,
“If the Council sees fit to do what is proposed here, I will no longer encourage my officers to come to work when they are ill, or to give up leave time to which they are entitled. As for myself, I will no longer work seventy and eighty hour weeks, and when my shift is over, I will turn off my phone until I go back on duty. I will do what they town is paying me to do, and no more. In addition, the day after this amendment is approved, the phone numbers of each Councilman will be posted on the front door of the police department with a suggestion that the citizens contact their Councilman if they have a problem.”
As the meeting went on, Councilman Donnie Jeanes seemed to move towards the idea of a budget workshop before voting to reduce the force, and to look for other means of addressing the problem.
Eventually a motion was passed with the Donnie Jeanes casting the swing vote to hold such a workshop before taking a final vote on the proposed amendment. The workshop will be held on March 7, two days before the regular Council meeting.
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