During budget discussions
By Stan Welch
There were some new themes and some old themes that came up at a budget meeting held by the Anderson County Council Tuesday morning. Prominent among the recurring themes was the apparently continuing failure of the General Assembly to honor its obligation to return a pre-determined amount of money to the county, based on a formula created and approved by the General Assembly several years ago. The legislature’s failure to honor its obligations began in 2008, as the national economy began to falter, and impact government at every level.
As the economy began to gradually recover, the General Assembly continued to withhold millions of dollars from the county each year. Magnifying the impact was the passage of Act 388, which slashed property taxes, including vehicle taxes. According to figures provided by the county finance department, the combined losses to those two factors comes to approximately $8.1 million.
To further illustrate that impact, especially on the county’s ability to address its infrastructure needs, Finance Director Rita Davis presented a chart that showed infrastructure spending peaking in 2007 at just under six million dollars; a figure that plunged to approximately $1.3 million in 2012.
Those facts, and the reality of relentlessly deteriorating roads and bridges led to a discussion of a possible road fee in the near future. The county currently has five road rated as ‘failing’, the worst category, with an additional five roads slated as poor. The proposed results of a road fee, if implemented, would be an additional $3.5 million a year for a twenty dollar fee per vehicle; $4.3 million for a twenty five dollar fee; and $5.25 million for a thirty dollar fee.
Those totals are based on 175,000 registered vehicles in the county. To fully recover the $8.1 million in so called lost revenues each year would require a road fee of just over forty six dollars per vehicle.
The Council made it clear that the subject of a road fee is just being explored at this time, and almost certainly will not be considered in this budget cycle.
Chairman Tommy Dunn stated his position that to seriously propose such a fee after the budget had received second reading approval would be inappropriate.
“ I would like to see the Council, as a group, travel around the county holding a series of town hall meetings, and hear from the people about what they think. If they favor the idea, then we can talk about it further,” Dunn said. “But if they just refuse to consider it, they’ll have to get used to having the kind of roads we have now.”
Councilman Ken Waters, who somewhat jokingly stated that, since the Council would receive such a beating from the taxpayers that they might as well go for the thirty dollar fee, also stated his opinion that the state wasn’t going to come to the rescue. “We’re going to have to solve this problem ourselves. It’s time we started taking care of ourselves. Our citizens deserve safe, serviceable roads. I have six vehicles registered in this county, but I also get to pay for them when they hit some huge pothole and knock the front end out of alignment.”
Councilman Tom Allen also reminded the Council and the few citizens present that he and most other citizens have seen significant tax savings because of Act 388 and the vehicle tax ratchet down. “I’ve saved a lot of money because of those tax cuts, but there is a down side too. Now we have to find some way to deal with that part of the equation.”
Twenty one counties in the state currently use a road fee, which is dedicated by law to be used for infrastructure improvements. The average fee for those counties is $23.06.
A more recent theme that was well discussed was finding uses for existing properties that the county owns, as well as dealing with the demands that maintaining those properties imposes. For example, in recent years, the county has spent well over a million and half dollars in roofing repairs at the historical courthouse, the civic center, the main library and the museum.
The county has also relocated several departments, such as the election commission, which is currently renting office space at a cost of $37,200 a year.
Chairman Dunn asked about the status of the McCants building, and the old National Guard Armory, with an eye towards repairing those buildings and relocating various departments to those locations.
He also raised concerns about the fact that the county’s backup 911 operations are currently housed in the same facility that was deemed unfit for the actual 911 ops center, when a new facility was developed.
“It makes no sense to me to move the primary operations from a site because it is unfit, and then locate your backup system in that same unfit location,” Dunn said.
With a consensus of Council, he instructed director of procurement Robert Carroll to prepare a list of county properties and an estimate of the cost of putting them into usable condition. He also asked for an estimate on the cost of relocating the backup 911 system to an alternate location, preferably outside the Anderson urban footprint.
Emergency management director Taylor Jones gave Council a presentation for the implementation of a 311 phone system, as a possible means of relieving the stress on the 911 system, which receives hundred of thousands of non-emergent telephone calls each year. The 311 system would be intended to give access to citizens with issues like potholes, high grass, derelict housing, and any number of other non emergency matters.
The system was tried as a pilot program a year or so ago and was very successful. The costs of the system under the county’s server at that time was prohibitive; but according to county administrator Rusty Burns, those costs have all but vanished under the county’s new arrangement with Charter. The program would assemble a team of five people, each with expertise in an area of county operations. The system would operate from seven in the morning till seven in the evening seven days a week.