York County Council debates new budget, property tax increase

adouglas@heraldonline.comJune 12, 2013 

The York County Council likely will pass a budget tonight that includes higher property taxes, a 1 percent “cost of living” pay increase for staff members and no allocation for hiring more employees not mandated by the state.

Council members wrestled with budget proposals on Wednesday night, with some giving a “doom and gloom” impression about the county’s financial state, Chairman Britt Blackwell said during the meeting in Rock Hill.

York County’s financial state is healthy, but a tax increase or major cuts in spending will be necessary over the next few years to avoid dipping too far into the county’s savings, said interim County Manager Anna Moore.

The trend over the past few years of using “reserve funds” to keep up with operational costs in the county is “troubling,” she said.

But, Moore stressed, “the county is not broke.”

The majority of the council has agreed to a property tax increase this year that would add about $6 per year to the tax bill on a $100,000 home.

For business owners with $500,000 in commercial property, the increase would be an extra $45 per year.

The increase would go toward York County’s debt service, or paying back loans.

Three councilmen, Bump Roddey, Joe Cox and Chad Williams, said on Wednesday they’d support an additional tax increase this year to ensure the quality of services provided to residents doesn’t suffer.

Roddey, Cox and Williams support a separate tax increase for the county’s “general fund” spending to support operational costs such as staff salaries and fire and police services.

The three councilmen proposed adding an additional $4 per year on the tax bill for a $100,000 home.

The council will vote on the measure during a meeting Monday night.

A tax increase to make sure York County can pay back its loans will likely pass, Blackwell said.

Over the next three years, the county faces a shortfall in its debt service fund if it doesn’t increase property tax this year or next, according to staff projections.

By fiscal year 2016, if the tax rate isn’t increased to cover operational costs, York County could drop below its desired level of savings in its reserve fund, which could result in higher interest rates when the county borrows money.

Several councilmen said they felt the county could, over the next six months, cut spending and find a way to balance the budget without raising taxes to pay for operating costs and still maintain a healthy reserve fund.

Williams voiced hesitation to slashing budgets or reducing staff hours.

“When we cut people, we’re cutting services,” he said.

Departments and the county’s management have vetted all aspects of the county’s spending, he said, and he trusts that York County has done everything it can to cut taxes.

Roddey echoed Williams’ concern about spending cuts, saying, “We already know deeper cuts means reduction in services.”

Councilmen Curwood Chappell and Bruce Henderson repeated on Wednesday that they didn’t see the need to increase property tax rates at all this year.

The county “reserve fund” could save the day “one more time,” Henderson said.

Over the next year, York County could look for ways to reduce its spending, he said, starting with rejecting “unfunded mandates” from the state government.

“I’d like to buck Columbia one good time,” he said.

Cutting regulation mandates from the state will reduce staff costs, he said, and curb the county’s spending.

The county isn’t likely to hire any new people this year, Blackwell said, after hearing a majority of the council reject spending money on new staff salaries and benefits.

More than 30 requests came in this year from departments seeking more staff, including deputies for the sheriff’s office and a deputy coroner for the coroner’s office.

Blackwell was leaning toward honoring some of the personnel requests, he said, but added that he would bend to the majority of the council’s decision.

Most councilmen rejected the idea of hiring more employees, which would increase the county’s spending.

It’s “basic math,” Cox said, to not hire more people at a time when York County desperately needs to cut spending.

After debating the benefit of giving employees a 3 percent “pay for performance” raise, the majority of the council settled on a 1 percent cost-of-living salary increase across the board for staff members.

The council will hold its final vote on the county’s budget on Monday at 6 p.m. in the Council Chambers in the Agricultural Building at 6 S. Congress St. in York.

Anna Douglas 803-329-4068

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