Financial pain could be in store for Charleston County property owners and employees in 2010, and the opening of the new jail could be delayed by months, if cost-saving measures outlined at a budget hearing Wednesday prove necessary.
In a 4 1/2-hour budget meeting attended by most elected and appointed county officials, council members debated measures ranging from spending down the county's fund balance to requiring as many as four unpaid days off for county workers next year.
However, the council also decided to spend an estimated $275,000 in the current budget to repay employees for taking an unpaid holiday.
Charleston County, like other local governments, has been struggling with falling revenues tied to the poor economy, along with significant cuts in state aid and the threat of more to come.
The county's 2009 budget gap has widened from about $7.5 million in January to as much as $10.5 million today, and officials are looking for ways to fill that hole. Previously, the county left 30 positions unfilled and cut back on basic services such as road repairs and ditch maintenance.
For the 2010 budget, which goes into effect on July 1, the county is considering eliminating raises and longevity pay for county employees and adopting a substantial increase in health insurance premiums. Single county employees who now pay 50 cents every two weeks for health insurance would start paying $45.
For property owners, higher property tax bills appear likely, although the county has no plan to raise the tax rate. Bills would rise because a property tax credit funded by the local option sales tax is expected to fall sharply, as have sales tax collections.
This year, the county's estimate of local option sales tax collections came up $5 million short, but the shortfall was not apparent when property tax bills were prepared last fall. That means property owners got the full tax credit, but the county didn't collect the money to pay for it, and is now looking for savings elsewhere, such as by not repairing roads.
Council members are divided on whether to use some of the general fund balance, which includes a two-month spending reserve worth $28.5 million, an $8 million "rainy day fund" and $4.2 million left over from the 2008 budget.
Council Chairman Teddie Pryor said the $4.2 million shouldn't be treated as reserve money but should be put into the general fund, which would resolve much of the immediate budget trouble. Others, like Councilman Joe McKeown, said the county should instead look for ways to cut costs.
"It's always a temptation, in bad times, to dip into fund balance," McKeown said. "It's also habit-forming."
Despite all the budgetary bad news, the council decided to reimburse employees for taking President's Day off without pay, after learning the county had about $828,000 more than expected on hand. It passed on a 6-2 vote, with Councilmen Victor Rawl and Paul Thurmond opposed.