Dorchester tax increase would fund jail, EMS workers

Doug Warren

Dorchester County residents could see their tax bills go up next year to pay for detention officers and safety improvements for the county’s emergency medical services.

Under the $48.2 million proposed budget, homeowners would see a $33 increase on the tax bill for a $150,000 owner-occupied home or $50 for a $150,000 business or home that is not occupied by its owner. The current taxes are about $450 for owner-occupied and about $675 for the others.

At a workshop on Thursday, county officials said it is the first time taxes have been raised in about a decade.

“It’s an unusual budget for me,” said County Administrator Jason Ward. “Quite frankly, I don’t usually recommend tax increases. I feel like we are at a point now where there are some things we can no longer put off.”

The budget, up $4 million from last year, does not include merit increases for county employees, who received 1.9 percent raises for the last two years.

It includes $1.5 million for 27 new officers required by the state Department of Corrections to open the new detention center. The additional guards will be hired throughout the year to staff the jail, a 83,000-square-foot project set to open in summer 2016.

“I don’t see how we can back away from the 27 positions,” Ward said. “I don’t see that there’s any way around that.”

The budget also includes $1.2 million to add 16 employees needed to change the EMS workers from 24-hour shifts to 12-hour shifts, a move EMS Director Doug Warren said is “all about safety.”

An alternative would be adding $265,000 to add one more 12-hour crew during the day, an option Council Chairman David Chinnis called “kicking the can down the road.”

EMS calls have increased from about 14,300 in 2010 to almost 18,000, Warren said. Based on population, the county should have 10 ambulances, but only has eight units during the day and seven at night, he said.

The increased workload means the workers, on 24-hour shifts, become more fatigued, which can lead to motor vehicle accidents, work-related injuries and patient care errors.

“It’s safety for the public, so that we’re not falling asleep, rolling through an intersection and hitting somebody, and certainly safety for our own employees,” Warren said, choking up. “If I can get through my entire career and never have to go to a spouse and say, ‘I’m sorry your loved one isn’t coming home,’ then it will have been a success. Conversely, I certainly don’t want to have to go to a stranger’s house and say, ‘My ambulance killed somebody.’ ”

The decision “is pretty easy when you look at the numbers, but it’s not comfortable,” Chinnis said.

Councilman Willie Davis agreed.

“When all the cards are laid on the table, we have to be able to tell our constituents we have acted in your best interests,” he said. “We can’t jeopardize our citizens because we want to say, ‘I didn’t raise your taxes.’ I’d rather say, ‘I raised your taxes and that’s why you got to (the hospital).’ ”

Council gave first reading by title only Monday. Second reading and a public hearing are planned for May 18. An additional public hearing is May 26, with the final approval expected June 15.

Reach Brenda Rindge at 937-5713 or @brindge on Twitter.