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Aiken City Council begins 'New Horizons' planning sessions for upcoming budget

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Aiken City Council, Feb. 22 Screenshot

Aiken City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh, upper left, highlighted in green, kicks off a budget planning session with City Council members Monday evening.

The Aiken City Council consulted with the heads of several city departments Monday evening, as city staff works on the next budget and considers the council’s goals and long-term vision.

The roughly two-hour planning session – the first of three, dubbed “Aiken New Horizons” – touched everything from the current budget to preliminary estimates for fiscal years 2021 and 2022, from fire trucks and cop cars to sewer grouting and stormwater improvements.

In a memo distributed ahead of Monday’s meeting, City Manager Stuart Bedenbaugh described Aiken's fiscal health as “solid” – good news, considering the financial terror the coronavirus crisis has wrought on other municipalities. Across the U.S., the ongoing pandemic has driven down revenues and has led local governments to tighten their respective belts in the face of shortfalls.

Bedenbaugh struck a positive tone Monday night when addressing City Council: “Obviously, we’ve been working through a pandemic for 11½ months now. All things considered, I think the city has weathered this, to date, very well.” There are certainly challenges, he continued, “but I’m optimistic with what we’re seeing with our revenues.”

The city made conservative fiscal estimates last year as coronavirus infections ramped up in South Carolina. Bedenbaugh on Monday advocated for the same sort of circumspect approach for the months ahead.

“Some of the revenues that were hard hit by COVID have come in a little stronger than we anticipated,” the city manager said. “But still, we want to be very careful and cautious as we move forward in planning for next year’s budget as well as continued revenue expectations for this year.”

A draft budget should be ready around the end of March.

City Council's feedback-focused work session preceded a 7 p.m. regular meeting. City Council is, for now, meeting virtually in light of public health concerns. The meetings are public and are livestreamed on the city's YouTube page.

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