• Byrd, Bullard spar over process
Columbus County’s tax rate will remain the same, employees will get a seven percent COLA raise, and schools will receive a boost in funding under the new fiscal year budget approved Monday.
The new county budget of $81.5 million is a $4.1 million increase over last year, with no tax increase and without dipping into the county’s fund balance, the emergency “savings account” required by law.
County Commissioner Giles “Buddy” Byrd cast the only negative vote on the budget. Byrd criticized the use of federal COVID-19 funds for salary increases, saying that when those funds end, “we’ll be looking at a big tax increase.”
County Manager Eddie Madden and Interim Finance Officer Dan Leatherman pointed out that the county’s recent revaluation resulted in additional revenue, and generally, local tax revenues trend upward due to increased development and new business.
This was Madden’s first budget with the county. He was hired in February to replace Mike Stephens, who moved up from county attorney to county manager.
In compiling the budget, Madden met with department heads to prioritize needs, then worked out the budget requests. Madden then presented the board with a message breaking down the “big picture,” as well as a full budget detailing requests and projections. Previously, commissioners were directly involved in the creation of budgets, questioning each department head during workshops and taking part in the planning “line by line,” Byrd said.
“We always did it that way,” Byrd said. “I liked it that way, so the people knew what was going on.”
Byrd also said he is not as much in favor of lowering taxes as he supports “laying some money aside for the future.
“When you have a revaluation,” he said, “it’s not the time to spend. It’s the time to heal some wounds.” He speculated that the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) for county employees could cost two cents on the county’s property tax rate in future years.
In his presentation to the board Monday, Madden reminded the commissioners that he was hired to bring an objective viewpoint to the county’s administration. Madden noted that neither he nor Leatherman have any social or political loyalties that influenced the budget.
“This is about as objective of a budget as you can get,” Madden said. “I have no local ties. We have no political ties here. You hired me from the outside to be objective. That’s what we have done.”
While the commissioners identified a new county garage on the wish list, that project was not in. this year’s budget, Madden said. Instead, commissioners later heard a proposal from Enterprise on a possible lease arrangement for virtually all the county’s 181 vehicles. That proposal will be discussed in more detail at a future meeting.
While Health Department revenues are expected to decline this year, the Detention Center anticipates a $1.4 million increase in revenues from housing federal inmates.
Byrd closely questioned Madden on whether the county had ever had problems after borrowing from the general fund. Madden said that previous budgets relied on amendments throughout the year, as well as tapping into the fund balance.
Madden warned that the county’s fund balance is low enough that a member of the Local Government Commission – the state regulatory agency that watchdogs county and municipal finances – expressed strong concerns earlier this year over the county’s finances.
“We’ve heard this before,” Byrd said. “We’ve always been able to make it up, even when they were threatening to come down here and take over our finances.”
Charles McDowell said that he felt the revenue neutral tax rate of 65 cents per $100 valuation was too much of a reduction.
“I’d like to see us meet somewhere in the middle,” he said, “and get it down to around 75 cents.”
Byrd interrupted Chairman Ricky Bullard when Bullard was thanking Madden.
“Let’s look at the public record,” Byrd said. “You (Bullard) voted against the budget five times over the years, and you were absent once. Why is that?”
“I have always been a strong supporter of education,” Bullard said. “Those budgets were not good for education. This one does support our schools.”
Earlier this year, Madden asked commissioners to identify priorities, which were used by Madden and the management team to create the budget. Pay increases, increased support for law enforcement and emergency response, support for schools and the community college, economic development, and improving water, sewer and broadband were placed at the top of the list.
The general fund expenditures for the year were budgeted at $66.739 million, with the utility fund at $3.69 million. Other funding sources, including federal COVID-19 monies, totaled $11.07 million.
For the full budget message from Madden to the commissioners, see the below file.