West Pelzer Council divided over budget, staff

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By Stan Welch

West Pelzer Mayor Peggy Paxton says she was “totally ambushed” by the Town Council when they gave first reading approval to a budget that ignored her efforts to find and implement $40,000 in cuts from the current budget.

For months the issue of maintaining a full time police department and court clerk has been one of contention between the Mayor and Council, particularly Councilman Jimmy Jeanes. Earlier this year, Paxton pledged to find forty thousand dollars in budget cuts to support her intention to keep a full time police department, a full time court clerk, and a part time employee in the water and sewer department. She made it clear at the time that her pledge was intended as a negotiation over the contested positions.

However the vote on the budget last week made it clear that any idea the Mayor had that her efforts would be reciprocated by retaining those employees was mistaken.

Instead, Councilman Jimmy Jeanes, Councilman Donnie Jeanes, and Councilman Johnnie Rogers presented their own budget, which declined to replace a police officer who took another job elsewhere, cut the court clerk’s hours to twenty five a week, and did away with a part time position in the water and sewer department. According to the figures presented in the alternative budget, cutting the court clerk hours saved $18,466 in wages and benefits.

Police Chief Mike Clardy and Mayor Paxton have been trying to cover the gap in police protection through the use of part time officers, a short term approach that Jeanes and the other backers of his proposed budget support.

As in all governmental budgets, salaries and associated benefits such as retirement and the various forms of insurance, consume a large portion of those budgets.

West Pelzer is no different, A comparison of this year’s budgeted costs and next year’s is difficult, since the amount spent year to date on employees’ health care insurance is almost $54,000, but for next year is budgeted as half that amount.

There are a number of line items in the budget that simply don’t add up, according to Councilman Blake Sanders. “It seems obvious that this Council and Mayor need to get together in a workshop and hammer some of these things out. While both budgets are balanced, at least on paper, there are errors that have to be corrected.”

Paxton scheduled just such a budget workshop two weeks ago and not enough members of Council showed up to proceed with the session. Paxton says that is another reason she felt ambushed by the sudden presentation of a budget obviously crafted by the three members who supported it.

She added that with the proposed cuts, a TAN might not be needed this year. “Why make all these changes when this year’s budget has remained balanced all year. The lack of a police presence, especially on the weekends is a real problem. All I can say is that I promised to find forty thousand dollars in cuts and I did my part.”

Sanders also pointed out that while the budgets balance, neither will address the town’s most pressing financial need, the growth of the contingency fund. Last year the town exercised the fiscal option of issuing a tax anticipation note,in order to manage its cash flow problems. The proposed budget that received first reading approval reflects the use of that option again this year.

Sanders says until the contingency fund is built up, the TAN option is almost inevitable. The contingency fund can also be used to address any emergency expenditure, such as major repairs to the town hall. “Right now, if something were to happen, we would be in real trouble.”